Preschool has grown up. Just five years ago, the question of whether to provide quality pre-kindergarten to our nation's 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds was a relatively obscure policy dilemma viewed primarily as a child-care issue. Today, the discussion is not whether to make it available, but how -- and it is a robust conversation among policy-makers, educators, business leaders, police chiefs, and others who view early learning as pivotal to education, public safety, and America's economic prosperity.
The past year alone speaks volumes. In February, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke cited pre-K as a smart economic development strategy for the country. In August, The Wall Street Journal's front page declared the growth in state-funded pre-kindergarten "one of the most significant expansions in public education in the 90 years since World War I." Four Democratic presidential candidates have included pre-K in their education platforms. Their Republican counterparts have not yet endorsed pre-K, but many GOP state lawmakers champion the cause. And two prominent scholars, David Kirp and Bruce Fuller, are out with new books on the topic.
National attention to the issue reflects strong leadership by the states. Not everyone agrees with the movement in states toward pre-K for all, but it's difficult to dispute the momentum. According to the organization Pre-K Now, 11 governors in 2004 proposed increasing pre-kindergarten funding for FY2005. In FY2007-2008, 29 governors called for expanded pre-K, and 36 states increased funding. All together, states have invested nearly $2 billion in new revenues for pre-K over the last four years alone (see chart). Seven states -- Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, New York, Oklahoma, and West Virginia -- now have in place or have pledged pre-K for all 4-year-olds, with Illinois including 3-year-olds as well. And three others -- Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oregon -- now provide pre-K for all at-risk children.
Funding is critical, but quality matters, too, and states are making progress in this area as well. When the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University began measuring preschool-program quality in the 2001-2002 school year, just three states received the highest rating (9 or 10). Last year, eight states did. Over that time period, at least 25 state programs improved their score.
Which states have expanded support for early education -- and why -- signifies the remarkable transformation of pre-kindergarten into an issue that crosses party lines, engages unusual allies, and relies on multiple rationales. Of the 36 states that increased funding this year, nearly half did so with bipartisan cooperation in the legislature or between the legislature and governor. In South Dakota, a few champions, including the Republican governor and lieutenant governor and business leaders, tapped the state's economic-development fund to create its first pre-K program. In New York, law enforcement leaders touted the virtues of early education to reduce crime -- and helped persuade lawmakers to increase funding by 48 percent this year. Texas, meantime, expanded its pre-K program to children of military families last year, and this year made it available to foster-care kids.
There have been setbacks as well. California voters rejected a ballot initiative to provide pre-K to all 4-year-olds, citing a dislike of the funding mechanism, the universal nature of the program, and the use of ballot initiatives to make policy. Even though Florida amended its constitution in 2002 to enroll all 4-year-olds, the state has yet to ensure a high-quality program -- and this year became the only state to decrease funding. And about 10 states have consistently refused to put their own dollars into pre-K programming.
What explains the sea change in the status of preschool over the last five years? It is important but not enough to say supporting early learning is the "right thing to do." If that argument were sufficient, many children's programs would be flush with funding. In an era of competing interests for fewer government dollars, it has been essential to persuade the public and policy-makers that expanding high-quality early education is the smart thing to do, too.
Today's evolution of the pre-kindergarten movement, building on decades of activism, shows that our nation will invest in children's programs under the right circumstances, and in response to the right strategy. Support for pre-K has grown because advocates have shown it to be an effective response to disparate factors, and they have done that with compelling messages, and messengers, backed up by research.
Factors Driving Support
Young kids ready to learn. Research on early brain development (especially before birth to age 3), along with decades of knowledge about the impact of high-quality early education programs, has focused attention on the importance and rapid pace of early cognitive, social, and emotional development. Yet while the science is clear that the entire 0-5 age range is a critical window for learning, this country struggles with the appropriate role for government when it comes to very young children. Opinion polls reflect public ambivalence: There is the desire to have a parent stay at home with kids, especially until they're 2 -- but simultaneously the recognition that in today's economy, that's a challenge. However, they are more comfortable with public funding for preschool programs: A recent national poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that 82 percent of respondents believe it is very or somewhat important for a presidential candidate to "favor expanding and improving voluntary pre-K and Head Start programs so that all children arrive at school ready to learn."
Education reform that works. The public is frustrated with the state of education reform, with poor performance in many schools, international comparisons that show U.S. students lagging, and a bureaucracy that appears slow to change. Americans want to see improvement -- so they have embraced research showing the benefit of pre-kindergarten on children's success in later years. Studies started decades ago -- notably the High/Scope Perry Preschool and Chicago Child Parent Center studies -- and others since then show that pre-K helps improve kindergarten readiness, reduce rates of special education and grade retention, and increase high school graduation.
Good for the economy, good for public safety. These long-term studies established significant benefit-cost ratios (for example, 17-to-1) for investments in pre-kindergarten for poor children. As detailed elsewhere in this report, the numbers come not only from better schooling and higher earnings later in life, but from a wide range of averted costs associated with crime, teen pregnancy, welfare receipt, and more. In a 2003 report, Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank converted that data into a rate of return, similar to what one would get on a stock market portfolio. They found that pre-K for disadvantaged children could show an annual, inflation-adjusted 16 percent return -- impressive for any investment. When they compared that return with other economic development projects, the new question to policy-makers became, "Why invest in a new stadium (rate of return uncertain) when you can get a whopping 16 percent by investing in pre-kindergarten for poor kids?"
With strong economic data, including studies by Nobel laureate James Heckman, influential organizations such as the Committee for Economic Development and the Economic Policy Institute recognized the value of pre-K. Then business leaders came on board -- embracing cost savings, workforce improvements, job creation, and more. Governors focused on their states' economic vitality in a global marketplace have been powerful advocates, as well.
Similarly, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids -- an association of police chiefs, sheriffs, and other law enforcement leaders -- has highlighted research that links pre-K for poor children to drops in juvenile crime and delinquency. Law enforcement's message: The best way to reduce crime is not to build more prisons or even put more officers on the street, but to reach children early.
While advocates have made good use of the economic data, a caveat is needed here. It is important not to "oversell" any one intervention or potential cost savings. Even a 2-to-1 return would be impressive -- and some programs whose benefits simply cannot be translated into economic terms are well worth the investment.
One size does not fit all. State leaders stress the importance of tailoring approaches to their own circumstances, and the pre-K movement has responded by pairing the goal -- high-quality, voluntary early learning programs -- with a menu of options for meeting it. Most states offer pre-K in a variety of settings to give parents an array of choices. Some states aim to serve all kids, believing the best way to build widespread support is to engage families of all incomes, and because of new data showing how pre-K benefits children well above poverty. Others target funds only to disadvantaged children because of the higher rate of return for that group. Regardless of the ultimate scope, most states are starting with children who need preschool the most, and expanding over time.
Building on solid research and decades of work by early childhood advocates, the movement for expanding high-quality pre-kindergarten has given diverse constituencies a reason to care about pre-K -- and to voice support in their own terms. This has reframed the debate, making supporting early education the smart thing to do from a variety of perspectives.
Part of the movement's effectiveness stems from its focus. Children need a variety of supports to become successful adults, and pre-K is not a magic bullet that will address all of those needs. While states can and should have a broad vision, they can't win everything at once. The strategy choice is not between winning only one support for kids and recognizing that they need a comprehensive approach. Rather, it's between winning that comprehensive package one big piece at a time, or through small increases across a wide agenda. In this case, couching pre-kindergarten as one part of a comprehensive children's policy agenda was not what this issue needed. Scoring big victories with a previously unknown policy issue called for a tightly focused strategy to transform preschooling into a fundamental educational necessity that also spoke to states' core concerns about economic vitality and public safety.
However, substantial increases in support for preschool must not come at the expense of other effective supports for kids. States that make those choices will not ultimately strengthen their next generation. Fortunately, advocates in some states have leveraged public enthusiasm for pre-K to expand funding for related programs. (The following article highlights efforts in Illinois and Pennsylvania, for instance, to do just that.) This means if conditions for change are right, states may be able to tackle more than one issue. But to win big, they do need to focus. Once they win essential commitments on one issue, they can then apply the same strategy to the next priority.
The Next Building Block
Without adequate resources, states can't provide the high-quality programs that research indicates will produce real impact -- or deliver the outcomes policy-makers and taxpayers expect and deserve for their investment. Furthermore, as programs scale up, it becomes more difficult to control implementation. And there is troubling evidence on this front: As states are stretching to reach more kids, many are spending less per child.
Clearly, the next frontier in pre-K has to be creating high-quality programs that enter state budget battles armed with compelling evidence of effectiveness. Researchers need to examine which characteristics get the most bang for the buck: half-day versus full-day programs, teachers with four-year versus two-year college degrees, and so on. State policy-makers need to insist that any programs they support are based on the best research about effectiveness and evaluations showing children are indeed better prepared for later success. Advocates have the difficult task of keeping the pressure on states to reach more children -- while holding them accountable for quality. Toward that end, The Pew Charitable Trusts, along with the Foundation for Child Development and the Joyce Foundation, created the National Early Childhood Accountability Task Force, which has just unveiled recommendations for states on creating accountability systems to track -- and improve upon -- child and program performance.
Congress, too, has a critical role. Through Head Start, the federal government has been instrumental in making pre-K available to many of the nation's neediest kids, although the program has never even come close to reaching all eligible children. Many states build on existing Head Start programs in seeking to expand the population of children served. Washington could improve or expand Head Start, as well as encourage states to expand pre-K access and improve quality -- helping ensure that children in Indiana reap the same benefits from early learning as kids in Oklahoma.
Finally, the nation needs to figure out how to use growing support for early education as a springboard for expanding America's willingness to invest in its youngest children. Funding for preschool is not enough. We're hardly better off as a nation if a 4-year-old has access to pre-K but not adequate health care. Children can be disastrously behind well before age 3. To emulate the effective arguments made on behalf of pre-kindergarten to win another victory for children, we need empirical evidence showing that other investments deliver positive returns. The Partnership for America's Economic Success, a joint effort of a dozen foundations, is conducting research to determine the economic impact of a range of programs for children from before birth to age 5.
Historically, children's programs have not had the sharp elbows needed in federal and state budget wars to win and retain their share of the pie. And the fight will only get tougher. Without proven strategies that give all kids a good and equal start, America will struggle to compete with other countries whose children are already surpassing ours in educational attainment. The good news is that growing numbers of policy-makers, business leaders, and citizens recognize the essential relationship between healthy children and a vibrant nation. We understand that characteristics that help define a productive employee and a good citizen -- the ability to read, think, get along, follow directions -- start not in high school, but in the cradle. With good data and a smart strategy, we can make the case that for America to succeed, it must once and for all put its children first.
The Pew Charitable Trusts funds several of the organizations mentioned in this article, including Pre-K Now and NIEER, as part of its Advancing Quality Pre-K for All initiative.