Universal Pre-Kindergarten: America’s Best Solution

A hot topic in political conversation right now is the cost of higher education in America. “Student debt” has become synonymous with “tuition.”  It is an unfortunate, corporate system that America has found itself in in terms of higher education. But as talk of free or reduced cost of public universities has picked up, I wish there was as much conversation about universal pre-kindergarten. Pre-kindergarten and college aren’t as different as they may seem. They are both gateways to a better livelihood and are out of reach for a large number of Americans. A college degree has become the new high school degree, holding weight and authority in the job market. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 70% of the 30 fastest growing jobs nationally will require education beyond high school. Similarly, pre-k puts kids ahead when starting kindergarten but also has incredible long-term and economic effects. I’m going to break down down the pros of universal pre-k, and to be honest, there aren’t really any cons…

As a citizen of this world, I believe we have a social responsibility to provide high-quality education to all. And pre-k is no exception. Before children enter kindergarten, 90% of their brain is already developed. Utilizing pre-k is a way to assist the development in children with a positive learning environment. Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 7.33.28 PMOne of the greatest critiques of the American education system is that it is unequal around the country and between different socioeconomic classes. But, pre-k can reintroduce some of that lost equality. Universal pre-k, for every kid, puts everyone on an equal playing field. Some children go into kindergarten having already gone to pre-k and know how to read and count. Other kids go into kindergarten, having not gone to pre-k and are a step behind some of their classmates. This “behind-ness” tends to only continue and increase as children move on in their elementary/middle education. Universal pre-k evens the early education platform. With this, elementary school curriculums can be updated and accelerated and not have to configure for kids trying to catch up with each other.

Oklahoma, a tried and true red state, has adopted a universal pre-k system. “The Oklahoma Project” has put the social and educational needs of the Oklahoma people above party lines to end the cycle of poverty. The Sooner State first started a pilot pre-k program in 1980, and passed a law in 1998 providing free pre-k to all four year-olds. Families are not required to send their children, but ¾ do. Oklahoma has been praised for its pre-k model, which even sends out social workers to single family homes to coach the parent and stress the importance of reading to their child. President Obama commended the Oklahoma Educare (pre-k) schools in his 2013 State of the Union Address, but the response from conservatives was skeptical. New York Times op-ed writer, Nicholas Kristof, wrote in his article Oklahoma! Where the Kids Learn Early, “So how about it, America? Can we embrace “The Oklahoma Project” — not because it’s liberal or conservative, but because it’s what is best for our kids and our country?”

Not only do I believe that we should embrace the “The Oklahoma Project”, but that we can. One of the greatest cases for investing in early childhood education is the economic case. A report put out by the Executive Office of the President of the United States in December 2014, The Economics of Early Childhood Investments, cites multiple credible economic arguments (many from Nobel Prize winner and economist James Heckman) for investing in early childhood education.

  • Expanding early childhood learning would benefit society approximately $8.60 for every $1 spent, about half of that return comes from increased incomes for children when they grow up.
  • (As aforementioned) high-quality pre-k would narrow the achievement gap.
  • Increase children’s earnings in adulthood by 3 to 3.5 percent.
  • Profit gains from enrollment in early childhood education would create benefits that exceed the costs of the program. “If all families were able to enroll their children in preschool at the same rate as high-income families, enrollment would increase nationwide by about 13 percentage points and yield net present value of $4.8 billion to $16.1 billion per cohort from earnings gains alone after accounting for the cost of the program.”
  • Investments made early in a child’s life will see returns over his/her lifetime for the child and the community.
  • While IQ is usually presumed to be hereditary, this can be altered by environmental factors, such as being enrolled in pre-k.

The federal government supports nearly 1 million low-income children under the age of 5 through a pre-k program called Early Head Start. Additionally, today 40 states (and D.C.) have state-funded pre-k programs. While both of these initiatives are great starts to state sponsored pre-k, high-quality pre-k needs to be universal for all kids to get close to narrowing the achievement gap.

Beyond state and individual economic gain, high-quality pre-k impacts families, society, and the children themselves in many more ways (yeah, now you’re just thinking, what?! Pre-k can do all this? YES!). Let’s start with families. It’s nothing new that families with young children are often forced between working and taking care of their children. Childcare is expensive and children are expensive. Not being able to work doesn’t really help the scenario. With quality childcare through pre-k, parents are able to work more and provide more income for their families. Without a break in income, parents can better support their children financially and their family well-being.

Pre-k’s benefits reach not only the family, but society. Remember when I mentioned brain development at the beginning of this post? Well, by positively developing children’s brains in cognitive and socio-emotional areas through pre-k, we could see a reduction in crime rate (!!!). Positive, education-oriented developments in pre-k set kids up for success, and they are less likely to be behind and stay behind. With a positive mentality and brain development in children, costs of the criminal justice system and remedial education system are projected to decrease.

From what little I know about finances, I can tell you that the key to an investment is obviously the return. While I want people to invest in social causes just because their heart tells them to, it doesn’t often work that way (particularly in politics). So wake-up Washington! Investing in pre-kindergarten is one of the smartest things America can do. Not only could it improve the livelihood of millions of children, preparing them for educational success, it is also a sound investment. Particularly in terms of social justice investments, $8 benefit for every $1 sounds pretty great to me. If there is anything many Americans can rally behind, it is that they want their children to have a better life than them. Universal pre-k could help end the cycle of poverty (go, Oklahoma!) and improve the economy of communities around America. Let’s invest in our children, let’s invest in universal pre-kindergarten.

“We can, and should, be creating a preschool system that would be good enough for everyone. Public preschools should be built the same way we constructed our highway system: the same road available to all Americans, rich and poor.”  – Merrow, 2002

Image: My first day of kindergarten – 2003 

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