Every family in the United States should be able enroll their child in good preschool program, beginning at age three and ought to have access to good child care–including that provided by themselves at home–for infants and toddlers. The benefits would be profound for our children and the larger society, especially children from low-income families–half of all young children–but not only for them. Today we are far from achieving this vision of a more nurturing society and our progress has been painfully slow over the last two decades. All levels of government will have to increase their support for young children and families, including the federal government which can best lead the way by priming the pump–providing financial support and incentives that encourage and enable state and local governments to develop sustainable quality programs. For example, federal matching funds that start off big and gradually decline are well-designed to address the major challenge to state and local funding of pre-K: states must pay for pre-K now, but the off-setting cost-savings grow year by year as children progress through the grades.
Only about half of 3-and-4-year-olds attend a preschool program. From a national observational study where the quality of care for 4-year-olds was directly observed, we know that few children attend good preschool programs. Public programs improve quality somewhat for children in poverty, so children in middle-income families actually attend worse programs on average. However, many young children are in family day care homes that provide even worse care, so much so that the family day care homes attended by most African-American and Hispanic children are of low quality. Our under-funded child care subsidy systems are perversely designed to encourage this and may actually increase the number of children in settings that harm their development. As Cindy Lamy and I point out in our chapter in the recently published book Closing the Opportunity Gap, edited by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner, much of the educational failure and inequality that plagues our country is rooted in children’s experiences before they enter kindergarten.
In recent debates some have claimed that the federal government already spends a great deal on the care and education of young children and that most of this is wasted on ineffective programs. These claims are based on faulty math and misrepresentation of the evidence. Take for example, Grover Whitehurst’s estimate that the federal government spends $5,000 on every young child in poverty. He begins with $20 billion in annual spending on children–fair enough, Ron Haskins and I calculated that number together. But there are 5 million children in poverty, which yields $4,000 per child in poverty. And, of course, all of this is not spent just on children in poverty, so it would be much more reasonable to divide by the number of children under 5 in low income families = about 10 million children, and a figure of $2,000 per child.
How does federal spending on disadvantaged young children’s care and education compare with federal largesse more generally? Let’s consider two examples. The tax break for capital gains and dividends which allows wealthy hedge fund managers to pay a 15% income tax rate costs taxpayers $83 billion annually. In 2012, the federal government spent more than $20 billion on farm subsidies received by a small, relatively wealthy population. The 2014 farm bill increases so-called “crop insurance” subsidies that are actually open-ended revenue insurance for farmers. If Congress set evidence-based priorities for all programs based on returns to the taxpayers, young children would see more money, not less.
What about the claims that federal money spent on young children is wasted? I would have to agree that lost opportunities abound, but not as the critic’s suppose. Let’s get this clear: the Head Start national impact study’s oft cited intent-to-treat estimates grossly underestimate the program’s actual impacts, and even modest Head Start benefits likely generate benefits that exceed costs. Critics also seem to be in some kind of time warp that missed the last decade of Head Start reform and the evidence that these reforms increased effects on language and literacy development (if only Congress would call an expert in early language and literacy development to testify, surely this would be noted).
The biggest problems with federal programs for young children are that they ask too much of too little money. Nevertheless, both child care and Head Start spending could be better focused on learning and teaching. No amount of wishful thinking will permit this to be accomplished by reducing their budgets or just giving the money to states. The first step to improve Head Start should be doubling notoriously low salaries for highly effective teachers. The second step should be to dramatically reduce bureaucratic compliance requirements for any Head Start that agrees to be judged instead by teaching quality and children’s learning gains. The President’s pre-K proposal is in its own way a Head Start reform proposal that puts states in charge of the education of 4-year-olds; those two steps I set out above would go far toward enabling Head Start to integrate with and enhance state pre-K. States like West Virginia and New Jersey have already successfully integrated their programs with Head Start and child care at high standards. Federal policy that followed such leads could support states to significantly improve opportunity for America’s youngest citizens.
- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER
This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog in response to the prompt “The ‘Noble Intention’ of Giving Early Education” from Fawn Johnson.