Obama is shifting his position in relation to early childhood education. He wants to “make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America”. His position has gathered supporters across many States that have been arguing that inequity in education originates at a very young age. The president’s new emphasis might be due to the urgent need to close the existing gap between privileged and poor children we have discussed previously on this blog.
In 2011 the Obama administration spent $633 million on competitive grants for states to create high-quality preschool programs and only 9 states won them. During the 2010-2011 school year, 28% of 4 years-old and 4% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state-financed preschool programs (enrollment in private school was 29% and 31%, respectively). A NIEER report shows that only five states have set a goal to offer preschool slots to every 4-year-old. Moreover, 1.1 million students are enrolled currently in federally financed Head Start programs; and still there are millions of children outside the educational system. In the 10 states that do not fund preschools, most children have their first educational experience at 6 or 7 years of age.
Researchers have demonstrated that well-designed preschool programs more than pay for themselves. Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, concluded that each dollar invested in the Perry program, a high-quality preschool program for disadvantaged children, had returned a value that ranged from $7 to $12 to society.
The evaluation of the preschool program at Perry Elementary School in Michigan is well-known. There, low-income children were encouraged to plan, initiate and discuss their learning activities with the teachers, who not only taught during the school day, but also visited them at their homes to reinforce the lessons and conduct stimulation activities with the parents. Years later, the Perry students have lower school dropout and arrest rates, higher income levels, and lower teen pregnancy rates.
The Obama Administration is suggesting that the federal government works with the states to provide preschool for every 4-year-old that belongs to a low and moderate income family, and also to expand the Early Head Start program. Probably one of the most innovative parts of the proposal is that the federal government will match the amount of dollars that the states allocate to public preschool slots for 4-year-olds whose families earn up to 200% of the poverty line. The proposal also contains an incentive to include middle-class families: the federal government will assign extra funds to expand public preschool slots for middle-class families, who could pay on a sliding scale of tuition. The proposal comes as a handful of states have been more aggressively pushing taxpayer-financed preschools.
As an example, it is worth mentioning the case of Alabama where only 6% of the children are enrolled in state-financed preschools and the governor has called for a 12.5 million increase in the state’s preschool budget and will continue to increase it, so that in 10 years every 4-year-old would get a space at a preschool class. To receive public money, a preschool must employ highly qualified teachers, keep class sizes under 20 children, and follow the state-approved curriculum. Alabama received top marks based on its quality standards; and the good news is that the Obama administration is proposing similar standards for the federal program.
As Obama said, “We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids a chance.” Now the challenge will be that the taxpayer dollars flow to high-quality services. Latin America and the Caribbean countries committed to the expansion of early childhood education should watch closely how the implementation of this proposal unfolds.