Friday, June 7, 2013

The President’s Early Childhood Initiative: Quality Preschool’s Role in Closing the Opportunity Gap

Public education is often seen as a great equalizer, giving students from low-income families the chance to develop their talents and reach their full potential. In reality, American public education is far from a level playing field and many students start school already at a disadvantage due in part to a lack of quality early learning opportunities. Increasing access to high-quality preschool programs could potentially narrow the opportunity gap that helps to perpetuate poverty and weaken the economy.

 According to  Early Warning!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters, a special report from Kids Count, children from low-income families and members of racial and ethnic minorities are at significantly higher risk of low educational attainment, ranging from lower reading proficiency in elementary school to lower high school graduation rates. This opportunity gap not only adversely impacts these students, their families and communities but has far-reaching economic consequences for the United States. An analysis by McKinsey and Company found that the opportunity gap between students of different socioeconomic, racial and ethnic groups amounts to “the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession” and that if the gap between low-income students and those from higher-income families had been closed, the Unites States’ “GDP in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher, or 3 to 5 percent of GDP”. The Kids Count report identifies quality preschool education as one way to ensure that children are ready to learn at their full potential in kindergarten and first grade and an important aspect of narrowing this opportunity gap.

To address the disparity in school readiness and educational outcomes, President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address called for the introduction of universal preschool to ensure that all children have access to early childhood education. The President’s proposed budget includes an early education initiative that would expand provision to all children whose families live at or below 200% of the poverty level. Current programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start serve only children from households with income below the poverty level or who are eligible for public assistance. Many working poor families are not eligible for Head Start but may still find it difficult or impossible to afford private preschool tuition.

Quality preschool programs have long-term benefits for children including gains on cognitive tests, improvements in social and emotional development, improvements in school success including less grade repetition, less special needs education placement and increased high school graduation. According to a report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), the benefits children gain from quality preschool education are associated with long-term outcomes like greater school success, reduced crime and delinquency, and increased earnings over a lifetime.

These benefits could potentially result in significant cost savings over time if high-quality preschool education becomes more widely available. A University of Chicago longitudinal study of a preschool program implemented by Chicago public schools found in its cost-benefit analysis that for every dollar spent on providing children with a quality preschool education, $10.83 may be saved over time due to reduced burdens on the criminal justice system, higher incomes and higher tax revenues.

The Center for American Progress says that in addition to the cognitive and social benefits of quality early education, preschool programs are also important for working families, who often face tremendous difficulties in finding affordable, quality child care programs. Well-run preschool programs provide children with the enriching learning environment that too many child care settings lack. This has the potential to positively impact families and the economy in two ways – by serving to close the opportunity gap and in better supporting parents in the workforce – leading to better outcomes for children and their families as well as dual-generation increased economic productivity.

According to NIEER, several states have already implemented some form of universal access to preschool, including Georgia, Oklahoma, Florida, West Virginia, Illinois and the District of Columbia. However, in other states few children participate in state-funded preschool programs and in ten states there are currently no state-funded preschool programs whatsoever.

Following President Obama’s February unveiling of his plan to greatly expand access to pre-school, the Administration has been setting in motion the policy to implement this plan. At a Brookings Institution panel last Wednesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a keynote address on President Obama’s proposed Preschool for All Initiative. A number of experts in the field and policymakers dedicated to this work participated in the event including:  Congresswoman Nancy Johnson; Roberto Rodriguez the Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy; W. Steven Barnett the Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University and Grover J. Whitehurst the Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy. Secretary Duncan outlined the administration’s plan to expand access to preschool and Congresswoman Johnson discussed the challenges that states currently face in providing high-quality preschool programs.
State policymakers may wish to consider examining the early learning provision currently available in their state as well as the percentage of children currently enrolled in early childhood education programs to look for ways that access to quality programs could be improved. Expanding access to high-quality preschool is an effective strategy for ensuring better outcomes for children. In doing so, and closing the opportunity gap, policymakers begin to better meet the needs of their constituency, work toward equity and boost their economies.

For more information on improving educational outcomes and the economy, please visit for a fact sheet on building a 21st century workforce to strengthen state economies.  

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