Pre-K would be an economic winner for America

By Cate Long
February 14, 2013

An increase in the minimum wage and universal pre-kindergarten education were part of the centerpiece of Barack Obama’s State of the Union address this week. These proposals address both income inequality and low academic achievement. Expanding pre-k education would benefit all states that would be willing to participate. According to the Council of State Governments:

Today, 39 states provide funding for 4-year-old kindergarten. Nine states plus the District of Columbia offer pre-K to all 4-year-olds. No state provides universal pre-K programs for 3-year-olds, although 26 states provide pre-K for some 3-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

This provides a good foundation to build on. What is gained by educating four-year olds? From the Council of State Governments again:

That question was the subject of a research study published in a 2005 edition of The Policy Studies Journal, a product of the academic research group Policy Studies Organization. Researchers tested four-year-olds entering pre-K and a similar-aged control group that had not attended preschool. The study revealed 4-year-olds who had completed a year of preschool scored 16 percent higher on language tests than children who had not attended preschool. The results varied widely, however, according to race and economic background.

White children showed no significant increase in test scores, while Hispanic children’s scores increased more than 50 percent. Low-income children’s scores also increased significantly, including a 31 percent increase in cognitive skills and an 18 percent increase in language skills. The research concluded children enrolled in full-day pre-K programs outperformed those enrolled in half-day programs.

Of course we must address the money question. My rough math says that the cost of educating this little platoon of Americans would be about $8.7 billion. This is merely a rounding error for federal or total state budgets. The CSG again:

These pre-K programs touch more than 1 million children nationwide. Offering quality pre-school programs to all 3- and 4-year-old children would cost an average of $8,700 per pupil, the National Institute for Early Education Research estimates.

But is the investment worth it, particularly given current budgetary constraints? The research center estimates the average benefits from a program accessible to all 3- and 4-year-old children would be at least $25,000 per child, substantially more than the cost.

How does America stack up internationally? On the number of children enrolled in pre-K programs, the U.S. is 28th among OECD countries and 6th among G20 countries on spending. The OECD reports:

The U.S ranks 28th among 38 OECD and G20 countries in the percentage of 4-year-olds in early childhood education, with a 69 percent enrollment rate. It ranks sixth among 34 OECD and G20 countries in terms of annual expenditure per pupil at this level (USD 8,396; OECD average USD 6,670).

Good government should be about choosing priorities and weighing the efficiencies of spending. Universal pre-K education is an expenditure that passes the smart spending test.

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