When the Obama administration set accountability as a priority in it’s efforts to strengthen Head Start it made sense to me. There have been calls for revisions of Head Start funding for years. I am not sure if there will be unintentional negative consequences down the line but any effort toward change takes that risk. What was surprising about Obama’s state of the union speech and the plan outlined by the executive office is the focus on state and federal partnerships.
The president’s plan would offer grants to increase access and quality of preschool services. In order to obtain these grants some requirements would need to be met.
Pre-K Standards of learning
A plan for comprehensive data collection
A plan for comprehensive assessment system to measure effectiveness.
Programs would be required to hire well-trained teachers paid similarly to K-12.
Adopt class size restrictions
Adopt rigorous curriculum
Integrate comprehensive health and related services
Implement a systematic evaluation system for programs
If the president’s agenda were to be realized I think we could see a real shift in increased school readiness at a national level. This shift could have countless benefits both financial and social for America. However, I am afraid it won’t happen because it has been framed as an economic argument.
I think that sometimes advocates for public pre-K weaken their argument when they use statements like the president’s in the State of the Union address. (From the Heckman Equation – invest in early human development facebook page.)
I think what might prevent Obama’s early childhood plan from gaining traction is that sometimes the financial argument is not going to work to convince those already opposed to universal access. Recently a colleague commented on the image above I reposted on my facebook page. He basically said, “Preschool is expensive and there is no guarantee it will work. What research do you have to back this up?” I couldn’t really disagree with that analysis. We don’t “know” it will work. I understood his wanting to know the research. The research strongly suggests pre-k is a good investment. In order for pre-k to yield $7 -$1 investment the quality would have to be the same as the programs in studies it is based on. That is possible but it will take time. After providing a resource like this one at the World Bank, I decided to respond in a way that struck a little closer to home. I said,
“No funding policy is conclusive or sound proof. But, you eat vegetables because numerous studies have shown eating them leads to long term health benefits not because you can prove you will be alive in 20 years even if you don’t.”
He changed the subject. I think what might be a more powerful argument for the president’s plan is that it would benefit children at all levels of the risk spectrum. Here are three additional arguments that could be made.
The funding argument points our attention to the cost not the benefit. Universal access would benefit more children than a targeted system because it would not rely on arbitrary guidelines like free and reduced lunch for decisions. However, according to the New York Times, states with universal access, such as Oklahoma and Georgia, enroll 4 year-olds at a rate of between 59% and 73%. Universal access is not the same as funding every child but the opportunity is there.
A targeted approach to preschool leaves some low and middle class families to take huge slices from modest budgets in order to pay for daycare, sometimes paying more than rent. And as we have seen recently, this can be a terrible way to spend money.
Even though there are larger benefits for low income children, there are still benefits for children at middle and higher levels of income. A RAND corporation study (Karoly & Bigelow, 2005) found that if a universal approach was taken in California there would be a benefit of $2.62 per dollar spent. This may not seem huge when compared to the more popular studies that are cited but it is still more than double your money for $1.00. The most interesting idea out of the RAND study is not the benefit to society but the benefit to children. RAND found that in calculating potential benefit of high quality preschool, high risk students may realize 100% of benefits, medium risk students may realize 50% of benefits and low risk students may realize 25% of benefits. These benefits include less grade retention, fewer years in special education, additional high school graduates, fewer cases of child abuse or neglect, and fewer juveniles entering the justice system (Karoly & Bigelow, 2005).
When I think about basing our decisions more on helping children and less on the economy I have a little more faith in our ability to do the best thing for our future.
Karoly, L. & Bigelow, J. (2005) The economics of investing in universal preschool in california. RAND Labor and Population 1-238.