The Case for Universal Preschool

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.