U is for Universal Pre-K

Author: John Bedell (Democrat)

As the story of the 3 Little Pigs went, it was the house of bricks that withstood the relentless blow of the Big Bad Wolf. This story is one that is told quite often in Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K). Coincidentally, this exposure to ABCs, circle time, and flashcards, or lack thereof, has the potential to be a foundation of brick or a foundation of straw. Exposing our children to the Big Bad Wolf of society without the strong foundation of brick is as though we are giving the Big Bad Wolf a warrant to huff and puff and blow their houses down. These simple, foundational bricks of a child’s education are, unfortunately, only presented to roughly 68% of 4-year-olds across the country. During times when children are first building their houses, it is important that we give them the tools and materials to build one that is going to last. 

As Emma García and Elaine Weiss of the Economic Policy Institute say, “Children who start behind stay behind—they are rarely able to make up the lost ground. Greater investments in pre-K programs can narrow the gaps between students at the start of school.” We as a nation have an obligation to narrow those gaps and to provide an equal starting line for every child. Should we fail to do so, we encourage an inherently unequal society, one in which we limit success. 

The root of such inequality is the cost of tuition. According to US News and World Report, in the United States, average in-state college tuition for the 2019-2020 year costs $10,116. In the United States, Pre-K can cost anywhere between $5,900 and $11,652, with the spending tied to family income, and often the quality tied to price. While not all top-tier schools offer elements and features desired by all families, the fact that the most elite of schools, such as the Nueva School in California, The Sidewell Friends School in Washington DC, and Cranbrook School in Michigan, all cost twice the average in-state college tuition, are more expensive than the average college tuition reveals the natural inability for many families to afford a high-quality Pre-K education. Such high-quality Pre-K offers far more than just a daycare. The American College of Education argues that in Pre-K, students ought to learn fine motor skills, listening skills, how to take care of their basic needs (feeding themselves, getting dressed, and more), social skills and conflict resolution, and simply free unstructured play. All of these skills transcend more than anything a mere test can measure. Each of these skills will play large roles in the lives of these children upon leaving the school, and eventually entering the “real-world.”

Now while the cost of Universal Pre-K may be daunting, the cost-benefit analysis reveals it will return far more to the community than it will take. Studies into various programs, such as the Perry PreSchool Project, a program designed to specifically help disadvantaged children receive equitable Pre-School, revealed cost-benefit analyses highlighting a seven dollar return for every dollar invested into Pre-Kindergarten programs. Arthur Reynolds, a researcher at the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, says, “The benefit doesn’t have to be 7 for all students, and plus the nature of instruction is much better today than in the past.” While not every student will receive such benefits, merely being exposed to such valuable experiences help these students, and in coming years, the quality of this Pre-K education will improve, as will the students’ experiences. While not all fiscal gains are directed to the same destination, estimates from the Southern Education Foundation found that by the 40-year mark of a Georgia Universal Pre-K system, the federal government would save $5.12 and Georgia state government would receive $1.59 for every dollar invested. It is important to note that a lot of the surveys and studies are limited in some scope, however, despite the varying findings surrounding the amount of money that is saved, the general agreement is that money is in fact saved.

While numbers help to quantify potential successes of these programs, the true magic of universal Pre-K lies in the specific benefits it often yields.  

One such benefit is the ways in which it drastically reduces the likelihood of a child to be arrested. Poverty, exposure to violence, and abuse and neglect can often become stimuli for crimes. As a result, children born in low-income communities without as much support throughout the house or at school are more predisposed to crime, as it was found that persons in poor households had more than double the rate of violent victimization than those in high-income households, and that disparities in crime rate still exist between high and low-income communities, with this exposure to violent crime hurting the health of individuals as well as the whole community. Understandably, providing more widespread access to high-quality care and education from a young age can help break these cycles. The Economic Opportunity Institute found that children that were not participating in a preschool program were “70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.” By helping to decrease the rates of violent crime, Universal Pre-K helps to similarly decrease the cost of incarceration in these communities. As a result, we can reinvest in communities, in turn helping to provide resources that may be available to upper-middle-class communities but are absent in communities that need them the most. By offering Pre-K to more children, we provide the opportunity of upward mobility to many whom have never had it. The combination of such upward mobility with decreased crime rates leads to a direct investment back into the community. Studies presented by the Economic Policy Institute found that investing in Universal Pre-K would lead to a $156 billion total increase in worker’s compensation and a $77 billion reduction in cost to families due to the decrease of child abuse and crime rates. 

The most natural question when examining implementation of Pre-K is if it impacts student success in school. The answer to such a question is, as many things are, more complicated than simply yes or no. Studies have continually found that come kindergarten, students that went to Pre-K are more prepared than those that did not. Some studies have found that by second or third grade, the gains made by kindergarten do not make a significant difference in test scores; however, that is not to say that studies on the successes of Universal Pre-K are conclusive, as in states such as Oklahoma, where high-quality Pre-K is offered to all, students are found to be nine months ahead in reading and five in maths compared to students who did not have such Pre-K experience. A likely reason for the variance in such findings is the variance in the quality of Pre-K. Quite often, the states with lax requirements in curriculum or hiring practices are the same ones producing mediocre statistics. However, the fact that the justification for removing such programs is occasional subpar test scores demonstrates the failure of the American school system to help develop the whole student. As demonstrated, the need for universal Pre-K spans beyond solely an educational standpoint, but also a developmental standpoint and a family stability standpoint. To remove a program that has so many benefits rather than to ensure that the program is improved by examining working systems, such as in Oklahoma, is to devalue the whole-person development Pre-K helps to encourage. 

Apart from the statistics, Universal Pre-K itself is a necessity in any developed country. In Japan and the United Kingdom, countries with which the United States competes in terms of schooling, there is a near 100% participation rate in Pre-K. Development of the next generation ought to be the priority of the government, and the fact that an entire year of schooling is not made universally applicable demonstrates a need for reform. As a country, we have an obligation to serve every citizen, not just the ones that can pay, therefore the benefits of universal Pre-K will help create a country built for all. 

We have an opportunity to recreate the story of the three little pigs. We can turn the story into one where 31% of 4-year-olds are given only straw to build their homes, or we can turn the story into one where 100% of 4-year-olds are provided with bricks to build their homes. 

The choice should be simple. It’s our job to protect our little pigs from the big bad wolf, and the best way to do that is to build a strong, brick foundation with Universal Pre-K.

This article has been fact checked and edited by the editorial team of Next Publius. We do our best to minimize cherry-picking of data, and we try to include multiple sides and opinions on any given topic. We recognize that it is often impossible to eliminate all biased language and data in their entirety from an article, especially when the research and discourse around certain topics are slanted in favor of a particular stance. We also recognize that authors and editors have their own fair share of biases. To combat this, we identify contributors’ affiliations and political leanings at the top of each article, and we provide other interpretations, opinions, and rebuttals beneath them. Read more about Next Publius’ mission here.

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