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The Case for Universal Preschool

The benefits can't be summarized in a quantitative study.

by
Laura McKenna

Bio

September 30, 2008 - 12:15 am

When my son was three, we sent him to preschool. It was a tough time for us. I was home with him and a new baby. My husband was changing careers and was making $40,000 a year. We lived in a four story, walk-up apartment in Manhattan. The cheapest preschool in the area cost $5,000 per year.

The preschool was also very far from our apartment and not reachable by public transportation. A school bus drove him to school in the morning. But every day at noon, I had to pick him up. I would strap my newborn baby to my chest and walk a mile and a half and then walk back again urging the three-year-old along. Sometimes the baby was napping, so I had to carry the stroller down all those stairs using the sideway method that only Manhattan moms know how to do.

Why would I burn a thousand calories daily and 10% of our income on preschool? It wasn’t because I wanted to give my kid an edge in test scores. His program did not offer any academics, and we taught Jonah his numbers and ABCs at home. It wasn’t because it was cheap childcare. I could have hired a babysitter to watch both kids for less money and less hassle. We sacrificed so much because my son gained other things from that experience.

He learned how to sit down in a circle group. (Well, he somewhat mastered that skill.) He played with other kids his age and they worked out differences over Lego and Power Rangers. He did art projects. He was in a show and sang a song on stage. He separated from me. I met other parents of three-year-old boys and became less isolated. Going to school and recovering from the walk provided structure to our lives. I didn’t have to spend the day battling over TV time. I got feedback on his strengths and weaknesses. I talked with other parents about psyching out the insanity of the New York City school system.

In short, preschool is about way more than academics. In the Wall Street Journal, Shikha Kalmia and Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation point to studies that show that kids who attend pre-k have an edge in kindergarten. However, by fourth grade that edge disappears and there is no difference in test scores between the two groups. Kalmia and Snell argue that since there is no lasting academic benefits from preschool, government should not offer universal preschool.

But the studies clearly show benefits for preschool kids in kindergarten. In a study of 3,500 incoming kindergarteners in Oklahoma, researchers at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute and Center for Research on Children in the United States found that as the kids entered kindergarten those enrolled in the state program had better reading, math, and writing skills than kids who were either not enrolled in preschool or who spent time in the federally funded Head Start program. The benefits even extend beyond lower income groups.

The benefits dissipate because the pressures of life for lower income kids increase as they get older and because of the failures of elementary schools. It seems coldhearted to deny kids those early benefits just because other obstacles interfere with long term benefits. Perhaps Kalmia and Snell would refuse a dehydrated man a bottle of water in a desert just because he’s going to die of thirst anyway.

In addition, the other benefits of preschool — the socialization for both the kids and the parents — can’t be summarized in a quantitative study. Yet, parents must be aware of these gains. Why else would 70% of kids attend preschool at enormous sacrifices by parents? Mothers and fathers are not illogical. They make these sacrifices because they see gains.

The fact is that preschool is no longer a luxury. Middle-class families sacrifice vacations and second cars in order to afford to give their kids three hours a day of pre-kindergarten. Government funded universal pre-k can aid struggling working families.

Preschool education is an area that would benefit from a voucher program. Unlike regular education, there are many private programs already operating in church basements and YMCAs across the country. There is no need to build new infrastructure or hire new workers. Just give families a voucher to attend one of these existing programs provided they passed certain accreditation standards. This voucher program can be limited by income in order to keep costs down.

The benefits of preschool are obvious to parents. Nearly every family who can afford it sends their kid to preschool. Let’s give a hand to those who are struggling to give their kids the opportunities that should be available to all.

Laura McKenna is a political science professor who lives in New Jersey. She blogs at 11D.
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