The President’s Preschool Proposal: What It Is and What It Isn’t

March 25th, 2013 at 10:51 pm

You will recall that in his last State of the Union address, President Obama announced a policy idea that makes a whole lot of sense for our times: universal pre-school.  It’s easy to describe why this is a good idea, and I’ll do so in a moment, but in recent debates, I’ve noticed some opposition talking points creeping in that—surprise—don’t have much at all to do with what the White House appears to be proposing.  So let’s clarify a few things and raise a very big question that will shortly be answered (how to pay for it).

Why do this?  Easy: because so much research shows how important it is, especially for kids from less-advantaged households, to get the cognitive boost that quality early-learning programs provide.  For a readable review of a broad literature in support of that claim, see here.  But I can assure you that experts from left, right, and middle agree on this.

The President noted the oft-cited statistic that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on” and the link above shows that might actually be low-balling the net benefits a bit.  The $7/$1 estimate comes from a highly regarded study that “…assumed there is no value to preventing what they call “victimless” crimes–selling drugs to children or heroin use.”   It also left out benefits like reductions in abortions.

I’ve argued the case for quality preschool for all on equity grounds.  The revealed preferences of higher income parents show they know how important this is.  But forget that–put on the green eye-shade and explain to me why it’s better for society to leave positive net benefits of this magnitude on the table.

Why make it universal?  I was recently on a panel with a conservative scholar who very much supports preK for kids from families with less means but objects to a new, big, fat universal program run by the government.  He’s got a point but in fact, what the White House seems to be proposing is targeted at precisely those families of modest means—below 200% of poverty (about $45,000 for married couple with two kids).

Here’s the White House fact sheet, but Jon Cohn thinks the proposal will ultimately look like one from CAP:

That proposal actually has several components, including financial assistance to help parents pay for infant and toddler care as well as additional investment in the Early Head Start program. But the biggest component is a proposal to partner with states, matching their investments dollar-for-dollar, with a goal of subsidizing preschool based on income. For children in families with household income below twice the poverty line, or about $46,000 for a family of four, preschool would be free, just like public education.

What have the critics got wrong?  So, first of all, the proposal won’t be universal in the sense that it’s free to everyone.  In fact, that would engender significant waste, since it would be subsidizing investments that higher income parents have shown that they will make without the new program.

Second, the President is not simply proposing to extend Head Start.  An evolving talking point against the idea is “Head Start’s a failure—why would we want to pour a bunch more money into it?”

As the first link above shows, that’s not a correct assessment of Head Start.  Some Head Start evaluations have found its benefits to fade after a few years, but some of those studies are flawed and objective critics will tell you that Head Start’s outcomes are far more varied than “it doesn’t work.”

But the more germane important point is that putting a bunch more kids in Head Start is not what’s being proposed here.  The main proposal is a partnership with states to ensure that all four-year-old kids from moderate and low-income families have access to quality pre-school, with “quality” defined quite carefully (see fact sheet).

How’s he going to pay for it?  Ugh.  So here’s the ugly part.  The President has been clear that the program, which could run about $10 billion per year, would not add to the deficit.  He’s also signed onto to pretty deep cuts in the discretionary part of the budget that funds Head Start and similar programs (e.g., Pell Grants).  And of course, his cuts are a fraction of Ryan’s.

So there will have to a “payfor,” some revenue source that’s either a new tax or a cut elsewhere.  This will all be made clear in the President’s budget which is expected to be out in early April, but need I say that any payfor will be very tough to get through this Congress.

Still, those of us who’ve been waiting for this idea to get high-level backing like this knew it wouldn’t be easy.  We’re in it for the long haul, and I hope you are too.  In an economy where so much inequality is sapping so much opportunity from so many kids, it’s hard to think of a better cause.

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9 comments in reply to "The President’s Preschool Proposal: What It Is and What It Isn’t"

  1. Jeff Carter says:

    Increasing access to quality preschool is good policy idea, but it’s not a silver bullet. We’d get an even bigger bang for the buck if we simultaneously increased our investment in improving the literacy skills of parents/caregivers with low literacy. Children’s language and literacy development is still largely influenced by the home environment, and in many low-income communities, adult literacy rates are shockingly low.

    David Archer, head of program development at ActionAid, wrote in the Guardian last year that international development policymakers make a “fundamental mistake” when they think schools alone will improve children’s literacy: “When children come from homes where both parents are illiterate, and there is nothing to read or reinforce their learning, they are likely to fail.”

    I don’t see any reason to believe that will not continue to be the case here in the U.S., with almost 20% of adults reading and writing at below basic literacy levels in many communities. Even the highest quality preschool is unlikely to make up for a literacy deficit at home.

    When you look at the preschool studies, many of the most successful preschool models also included an education component for parents. At the very least, some incentive for states/communities to include a family literacy component or to collaborate with adult education programs in the community would strengthen the President’s proposal.

  2. Pablo says:

    Shouldn’t we fix K-12 first?

    “Counting Head Start, special education and state-subsidized preschool, 42% of four-year-olds are now enrolled in a government program. Federal, state and local financing for early learning is closing in on $40 billion a year, double what it was a decade ago. But can anyone say that achievement is twice as good—or even as good?”

  3. PeonInChief says:

    Head Start has fundamental problems, the most important being that it makes kids well-behaved and compliant. It doesn’t make them smart. To see this, all you need to do is look at Head Start curriculum and the curriculum of pre-schools that cost $15-20,000 a year. If we want pre-schools that provide what kids need, we need to spend a lot more money on it.

    But more important, the problems of poor children can’t be addressed by pre-school alone. Their parents need to resources to provide them stable homes with sufficient incomes to give their kids some of the “goodies” that the kids who go to expensive pre-schools receive. When 1/3 of the children in Los Angeles shift schools every year because their parents can’t keep their housing, it should be obvious that pre-school isn’t the only thing that needs to happen.

    • purple says:

      Making children “well-behaved” isn’t a problem. It’s how the education system is designed for poor people. A well-behaved classroom is one biggest factors in how a teacher is evaluated. And with tenure gone, that matters quite a bit.

  4. PeonInChief says:

    And if you want to read about one of the expensive preschools, look at this:

    It’s on the second page.

  5. Fred Donaldson says:

    Once again, the argument is made that we should not provide universal – whatever – because higher income folks can afford to pay for it themselves.

    If we have a public service, like public schools, or public healthcare for all, or even public childcare for all – it should be open to all members of the public, and we should not create a separate CLASS of people, who are stigmatized, since they qualify for a public service – just because they are poor. Should they be made to wear a green star? Walk on the other side of the street? Keep their gaze averted from ours? Many proud families would refuse to apply for such “aid”, rather than be classified as the bottom dwellers of society.

    With a fair, progressive tax system, the wealthy would pay a higher percentage of taxes, and more taxes, and should be included in every public program, because they are supporters, often even more equal supporters of these public efforts.

    In practice, the very rich will probably not need these public programs, and instead, will avail themselves of very expensive programs of their own making. But that is on them. Should we means test public parks, highways and establish drinking fountains for the poor, free, and the rest of us, 25 cents.

    Taking the middle class out of public programs, insures that a so-called lower class (less income, but not necessarily dumber or less moral) doesn’t feel equal to other Americans, and becomes isolated from the middle class to which it aspires.

    Any means-testing destroys the ideals of a public good, and replaces it with some humiliating charity from political “benefactors.”

    The regressive benefits now delivered from Social Security are another example of so-called means-testing, where upper middle class earners are starkly penalized with lower percentages of overall benefits and the lowest earners receive three or four times the benefit percentage. Such a charity approach loses support for a pension program because it has been converted to a part welfare system. The solution here is a fair basic Soc Sec benefit, supplemented by a pension based purely on wages earned and FICA taxes paid. And means-testing Medicaid, instead of us offering universal Medicare, forces families to “spend down” nearly all their grandparent’s assets, just to enter a nursing home, and they are then at very bottom of the income ladder.

    In the same vein, one of the great mistakes of Obamacare is its extra help to the poor and its sliding scale of subsidies. The goal should be “free” all the way up to the top, and at the same time, fair progressive taxes all the way to the top to pay to make public programs available to all who want them.

    You cannot justify an economic system that charges you more taxes and excludes you from public programs, but what we are doing is charging some people for public programs, instead of taxing them, which only saves them on other taxes by not using the public programs. If we taxed them to make these programs open to all – they would be paying for them – and probably not using them. Meanwhile the poor and middle class would not be second-class citizens, “getting something” extra from the government.

  6. purple says:

    In the end though, the economy needs janitors. And those janitors need to get paid a lot better.

    Obama blocked card check and any hopes of a revived union movement. Without higher wages for the working class these proposals are mostly going to fail.

    The unspoken idea that everyone in the country is going to become a software engineer or architect, etc. (with better schools, Head Start or whatever) is ludicrous. Most people aren’t capable and many who are aren’t interested.

    Some real steps should be taken to deal with equality of Outcome. Not some magical fairy tale of equal of opportunity and a purely meritocratic society.

    Because without some equality of outcome you can’t even approach equality of opportunity no matter how many Head Starts you peddle.