The Case for Pre-K

The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics by David Kirp (Harvard University Press, 352 pages)

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In 1961, 13 three- and four-year-olds from poor black families began attending a preschool class at Perry Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Michigan. They were there as much to learn as to teach. A team of researchers followed not only their time at the preschool, but their trajectory over the next four decades, and the findings were startling:

Compared to a control group of similar children who didn't attend preschool, this class from Perry Elementary School would be less likely to skip class, be placed in special education, or wind up in jail. They'd be more likely to graduate high school and college and have a job, and would earn more money than their non-preschool peers. And, 40 years later, their successes would launch a national movement to ensure all children the opportunity to attend and benefit from the same type of high-quality preschool they had.

The movement to expand publicly funded preschool education is perhaps the most ambitious, promising, and fundamentally progressive campaign in public education today. Its members want, first, to make an additional year or two of publicly funded education available to all four- and three-year-olds whose parents want it -- an enormous step, representing a potential 15 percent expansion in the time children spend in public education. And at this, they're succeeding: 950,000 children currently attend state-funded preschool programs, and the number of four-year-olds attending such programs has risen 40 percent in the past five years alone.

But these advocates want to go farther yet. They see the fight for high-quality, universal preschool as an opening flurry in a larger battle to sharply broaden the scope of the government's responsibility to ensure the success of young children and their families. Berkeley professor and former journalist David Kirp's new book, The Sandbox Investment, is the first comprehensive portrait of this universal pre-kindergarten (pre-k for short) movement.

For those interested in children's and education issues, it's a valuable primer on this significant but relatively new movement. It also serves a larger purpose, providing a guidebook for other progressive causes which could learn a lot both from the pre-kindergarten movement's improbable effectiveness in advancing its progressive aims -- even in states, such as Texas and Oklahoma, not known to harbor much affection for government programs -- and the challenges it faces.

Kirp begins by laying out the various strands of compelling evidence for the value of public investments in early care and education -- the Perry preschool story and similar experiments; economic research showing that preschool's impacts on kids translates into increased economic growth and a significant return on public investment; and neuroscience research emphasizing the importance of early learning. This information will be familiar to those who follow early childhood issues, but Kirp offers an accessible primer on the research for others.

Kirp is at his best, though, in the later chapters that focus on the preschool movement itself. There are candid quotes from, and thumbnail sketches of, key pre-k movement players, including some who are little known outside the weeds of the issue. He describes how the Pew and Packard foundations jump-started the movement early this century by investing in research, messaging, and an organizational advocacy infrastructure. And he offers detailed accounts of the achievements of pre-k movements in four important states -- Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and California -- that are illustrative of opportunities and challenges facing the pre-k movement nationally as it seeks to enact preschool legislation and translate it into high-quality programs for young children.

Quality is the key word there; despite strong evidence of the benefits of high-quality preschool, poor-quality programs can be almost worse than nothing, amounting to a waste of taxpayers' money and inflicting long-term harm on the effort to expand preschool when they fail to deliver promised results.

Yet high-quality programs have proven elusive in many states. The core of quality preschool is the interaction between children and preschool teachers. Good preschool teachers are emotionally warm and sensitive to children's needs, they have strong language skills and engage children in rich verbal interactions, they seize on opportune moments for learning, and they provide explicit instruction in key skills -- especially self-regulation, language and early literacy skills -- without making the classroom overly regimented. In a recent study, researchers from the National Center for Early Development and Learning observed state-funded pre-k classrooms in 11 states and found that only 25 percent provided sufficiently high-quality interactions; in general, the quality of instruction in preschool classrooms was poor.

Pre-k advocates have focused on inputs as a proxy for classroom quality. They argue that quality preschool programs must have class sizes no larger than 20 students, adult-to-child ratios no higher than 1:10, and teachers with bachelor's degrees and specialized training in early childhood education. These indicators aren't always sufficient to ensure quality interactions, but even on them states fall short. For example, less than half of states require all state pre-k teachers to have a bachelor's degree.

The obvious issue here is money: Teachers with bachelor's degrees cost more than those with less education, and the average state spends only $3,482 per-child enrolled in pre-k, significantly less than the average spending on elementary and secondary students.

Despite these challenges of ensuring quality, the pre-k movement has actually accomplished a great deal. State pre-k programs have grown rapidly over the past five years and now serve almost a million youngsters, surpassing the federal Head Start program. Twenty percent of America's four-year-olds now attend such programs, up from only 14 percent in 2001 -- 02. Three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Florida, which didn't offer any pre-k three years ago -- now offer pre-k free of charge to any four-year-old whose parents want it. Two others, New York and Illinois, are on track to join them soon. Illinois is also on track to become the first state in the country to offer preschool to all three-year-olds. The pre-k movement has also, slowly but surely, gotten states to raise the quality of their pre-k programs. For example, both Michigan and Missouri added a bachelor's degree requirement for teachers last year. Most significantly, preschool is no longer seen as a "culture wars" issue, and polls show strong support for preschool from both Republicans and Democrats.

These accomplishments are laudable. But many advocates see the universal pre-k movement not as an end in itself but as the groundwork for a more ambitious effort to expand public and social services for children -- including health care, child care, parental leave, and afterschool programs. This is also the thesis of Kirp's book, as its subtitle, "the preschool movement and kids first politics," indicates. Children's advocates have long sought to persuade Americans to embrace a broader concept of public responsibility to young children, but since the end of the Great Society era these efforts have been largely foiled. Spending on children below school age is barely a rounding error in state and federal budgets.

Kirp argues that a new generation of children's advocates -- trained in the pre-k movement, more hard-headed than soft-hearted in making the case for investments in children, proficient in both state-of-the-art message targeting and old-school organizing -- has the potential to change this. As evidence, he cites the 2006 defeat of Republican congressional candidate Arlene Wohlgemuth in Texas' 17th district -- hand-drawn by the state legislature to be a dead lock for Republicans -- after the children's advocacy groups Vote Kids and Every Child Matters succeeded in branding her "anti-child" for cutting funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

But Wolgemuth's anti-child record was almost uniquely coldhearted -- that's why the advocates targeted her. And Kirp offers little further evidence that the American people are ready to embrace the change these advocates seek. The high-quality, large-scale social programs "kids first politics" would promote are incredibly costly. And, while political rhetoric about the importance of kids is abundant, political will to put the dollars on the table is far less so. These obstacles will only grow as rising health care costs and an aging population place increasing pressure on state and federal budgets. Moreover, while universal pre-k for four-year-olds and health care for children have significant public support, polling is much less favorable towards preschool for three-year-olds or programs for infants and toddlers. Progressives who favor greater investment in young children face an uphill battle.

None of this is to discount the work of pre-k advocates. They have built a vital, ambitious, and increasingly successful movement that will likely result in the first major expansion of public responsibility to young children since the creation of the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997. In the process, they have already convinced many Americans that public responsibility to youngsters doesn't begin at age five.

But the pre-k movement is still far from finished -- less than 60 percent of three- and four-year-olds attend any sort of preschool (including those who attend private preschools paid for by their parents), only 14 states provide preschool to more than 20 percent of four-year-olds (none serve more than 20 percent of three-year-olds), quality in many states is abysmal, the average state spends less than $3,500 per preschool student, and 10 states provide no public support for preschool at all.

The pre-k movement still has much to do, and as long as that's the case, it's far too soon to predict a new day of kids first politics.