Show Us The Money For Pre-K

Jeff Bryant

If our nation’s leaders made policy decisions on actual evidence, this matter would have been addressed a long time ago.

This “matter” is the increasingly desperate state of the nation’s youngest children and the callousness in the way they’re being treated in our austerity-loving, market competitive culture.

There’s also evidence there is something we could actually do about it right now, if only there were the political will – and yes, the heart – to take the necessary actions.

On Thursday, senators on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) will meet to discuss an important step toward intervening with something that really would help – early education programs for the neediest children. Among the measures being considered, presumably, is the Strong Start Children Senate bill that is based in part on proposals from President Obama.

The urgency is paramount and the bipartisan momentum is there, but what’s not quite clear is whether senators are ready to show a determined willingness to find the money.

Just How Bad

The evidence of how badly our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable are hurting is beyond dispute. Last month’s release of an annual report by The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) called “The State of America’s Children” laid it all out.

While the U.S. ranks first in gross domestic product and leads the world in its number of billionaires, it is the second worst country when it comes to child poverty rates. Childhood poverty has reached record levels – one in five children in the country is poor. The number of homeless children has increased 73 percent since 2007. One in nine children lacks access to adequate food.

The economic consequences of this litany of sorrow are enormous: $500 billion in extra education, health care, criminal justice and lost productivity costs. But that figure alone does not come close to accounting for the long-term consequences of underserving so many who we expect to eventually take our places.

And yes, money, and how we have chosen to allocate it in our society, is part of the problem. On average, also according to the CDF report, states spend 2.5 times as much per prisoner than per student in public schools. The amount spent per minute on corporate tax breaks would fund the salaries of 16 childcare workers. The cost of one F-35 fighter jet would pay for one year of Head Start for more than 17,500 low-income children.

What To Do

Just as there is evidence of how badly our youngest citizens are hurting, there’s evidence that most Americans are ready and eager to do something to help by expanding access to education programs for three- and four-year-olds.

A recent article in The New York Times by Richard Pérez-Peña and Motoko Rich explained how bipartisan leadership in states has been slowly building.

The Times reporters explained that outside Washington, D.C., early childhood education has “become a bipartisan cause, uniting business groups and labor unions.

“Few government programs have broader appeal than preschool. A telephone poll conducted in July for the First Five Years Fund, a nonprofit group that advocates early education programs, found that 60 percent of registered Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats supported a proposal to expand public preschool by raising the federal tobacco tax.”

Early childhood advocates Laura Bornfreund and Conor Williams of the New America Foundation explained in The Atlantic, “Awareness of early education issues is as high as it’s ever been.” They noted widespread political support not only from President Obama but also from, “business leaders, law enforcement, retired military leaders, charitable foundations … economists [and] lawmakers in states red, blue.”

“But have we actually expanded preschool to more kids?” they ask. “Not really. Have we made progress at closing achievement gaps between young students from different socioeconomic backgrounds? No. Have we sustained funding commitments after the one-time stimulus boost in 2009? Far from it.”

So what’s the hangup?

The Expectations Hangup

One hangup appears to be over the expected benefits of these programs.

Recently, columnists Nicholas Kristof, also in the pages of The New York Times, wrote, “Republican critics focus on (and misunderstand) a major, well-designed project called the Head Start Impact Study. It found that Head Start produces educational gains that fade away. By third grade, when the research ended, there was little detectable difference between those assigned to Head Start and those in control groups.

The “misunderstanding” Kristof referred to are the social-emotional benefits of a national program such as Head Start could produce. “There are often long-term improvements” from programs like Head Start, Kristof explained, “on things that matter even more, such as arrest rates and high school graduation rates.”

Kristof concluded, “One of the most consequential national debates this year will be about early education. The evidence that it builds opportunity is overwhelming.”

However, as Kristof explained, large-scale preschool programs like Head Start have clearly been shown to benefit the social-emotional development of poor children. But do they benefit academic development? That’s not so clear.

In the same issue of the Times, professors Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer pointed out that, sure, academic benefits to large-scale pre-k programs tend to be elusive. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t possible when the program quality is significantly boosted. And we already have some evidence of how to ensure that as well.

Willingham and Grissmer wrote, “The preschools that do work teach less well-prepared kids precursor skills, the kind that many wealthy kids learn at home, through activities that don’t look especially academic … Teaching these precursor skills in a preschool setting, rather than at home, is not easy. Teachers have just a few hours per day and many children to serve.”

What we can take away from these two perspectives is that there is definitive evidence that expanded pre-k programs can benefit poor children socially, emotionally and academically – as long as we’re willing to pay for it.

The closest we’ve gotten to getting all we want from preschool programs, according to the experts at the National Institute of Early Education Research, is “the Abbott districts program in New Jersey, a high-quality full-day Pre-K program for 3- to 4-year-olds in the state’s highest poverty districts.”

These Abbot districts in New Jersey have also raised the cost of per-child expenditures far above what the wealthiest school districts in that state pay to educate their kids.

The Federal Government Hangup

Indeed, if program quality is so critical for preschool, all the more reason to ensure there’s adequate funding for it – and to address the challenge at a national scale.

Yet objections still come from the right.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for instance, is one of the Republicans most receptive to arguments for expanded preschool, but he rejected the president’s plan as a top-down mandate from Washington. “Early childhood education is important and we should try to make it available to the largest number of children possible,” he said to reporters at The New York Times. “But most of that should be done by local communities and state governments.”

This makes no sense. If preschool programs are going to accomplish all that conservatives want them to accomplish – in terms of social-emotional and academic benefits – they’re going to cost more. If they’re going to cost more, the best way to keep the costs down is through a national scope that could potentially impart some economies of scale.

It’s All About The Money

Gail Collins, in the same issue of the Times in which the Kristof column appeared, brought up what has ultimately become the crux of the matter.

She quoted Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who said, “Everybody seems to agree we need some sort of national effort to provide preschool education to our kids. What we don’t have is any discussion about how to pay for it.”

So there you have it: The evidence doesn’t seem to matter. What matters most is how our political leaders are going to answer the question: Are we ready to pay more to educate poor children – maybe even more than what we pay to educate our wealthiest kids?

The American people have answered, “Yes.”

And, to paraphrase Collins, it’s time our leaders “show us the money.”

Comments