Too much time and too many limited school resources are spent helping kids who are behind at the start of their academic careers catch up, rather than challenging all students to meet their full potential. This shouldn’t be the case. If every child had access to a high-quality preschool, more children would be prepared for school and ready to learn on day one. Teachers in the early grades would be able to dedicate limited classroom time to increasing knowledge and academic, social, and cognitive development instead of preparing children to learn. In fact, investing in pre-K returns $7 in later cost-savings and benefits by decreasing costs associated with grade repetition, special education, low productivity, and higher crime rates. It’s time we put limited education dollars to better use and invest early in every child’s education.

Forty states currently have some type of state-funded pre-K initiative of varying degrees of quality and enrollment rates. Before the recession, states were on track to continue investing in the expansion of public pre-K to serve more children in high-quality programs. However, state funding has significantly decreased for the past three years, with the biggest drop coming in the 2011-2012 school year.

State funding cuts to pre-K initiatives force choices between reducing the number of children served or undermining program quality, such as by cutting the number of teachers and professional development time. For example, Florida enrolls 79.4 percent of four-year-olds in the state, but only meets three of ten National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) quality benchmarks. Only two states that meet eight or more quality benchmarks enroll at least 60 percent of 4-year-olds: Oklahoma (74 percent and 9 benchmarks) and West Virginia (60 percent and 8 benchmarks). Additionally, 42 percent of children are enrolled in state pre-K programs that meet fewer than half of NIEER’s quality standards benchmarks.

This tradeoff between quality and access is unnecessary; all children should have access to high quality early childhood education, and with the proper investments state and federal governments can ensure that they do. States invested in providing broad access to high-quality pre-K see major gains in school readiness and achievement. In New Jersey, for example, the state’s Abbott Preschool Program has offered high quality pre-K to all children in the communities with the highest levels of poverty, about 25 percent of the state’s children, since 1999.
Evaluations show that children who attended Abbott pre-K had decreased grade retention and special education referrals, boosts in vocabulary and math skills in 2nd grade, and improved scores on state-administered achievement tests in later grades compared to children that did not attend. Additionally, Oklahoma has implemented voluntary pre-K for all 4-year-olds. Studies of the Oklahoma initiative conducted by researchers at Georgetown University find that, relative to the control group, students participating in universal pre-K experienced a 52 percent gain on assessments measuring children’s early literacy skills, and a 21 percent increase in scores on assessments of children’s pre-math skills, with the most dramatic gains for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and Hispanic children. These examples demonstrate significant gains in children’s achievement can be realized from state run programs offered at scale.

The federal government’s largest investment in pre-K is Head Start, for children ages 3-5 who are living below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or an income of $23,550 for a family of four. The federal government requires Head Start providers to meet high quality standards, and a number of studies have found that Head Start has long lasting positive effects for children. But Head Start, like most state-funded pre-K, falls short of serving all the children who need it. Though investment for Head Start has been growing in recent years, particularly with an additional $1 billion from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it has not kept up with demand. It is estimated only 50 percent of eligible children are enrolled in Head Start. With child poverty at near record highs and the economic recovery slow to come to low-income and middle class families, demand for Head Start is still growing.

As a recent First Focus paper reveals, the limited supply of public pre-K, combined with the high cost of private pre-K, results in lack of access for many families. The federal government should offer high-quality preschool at scale, similar to Abbott Pre-K in New Jersey and the Oklahoma initiative, to increase supply of preschool to capitalize on the positive outcomes for children and for the nation.

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