Benefits of public preschool

What does the research really say about the benefits of preschool? Photo: Marlie Kanoi

SILVER SPRING, MD, February 16, 2013 -  While the U.S. used to be the world leader for education, according to a 2012 report from Pearson, we are now ranked 17th, passed by Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Poland, among others. Finland took the top spot. While there is no silver bullet to reclaiming our place as the top educator in the world, we cannot hope to make it back to the top without starting early.

The HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which followed participants for almost 40 years, found that those who were enrolled in a quality preschool program were more likely to graduate high school, own homes, stay married longer, and have higher incomes later in life.  And the HighScope Perry Preschool Study is not the only one to give similar results. The Carolina Abecedarian Project studied children from low-income families and placed them in full-day, high-quality educational settings from infancy through age five. The Abecedarian Project participants, at age 30, had significantly more education than those in a control group and were four-times more likely to have earned a college degree. Participants in the early education group also were more likely to be employed, less likely to have used public-assistance, and not have children as young as those in the control group.

Photo by Micah Sittig.

Both of these studies, as well as others have found that the long-term benefits of preschool may well be increased social responsibility, but the positive social results could be argued to be greater than higher test standardized test scores. Few arrests, means less money spend on law enforcement and incarceration, and having fewer people need public-assistance also helps reduce the financial burden on the general public. Longer marriages mean more children growing up in two-parent homes, which has been shown to have numerous benefits in the long term.

Research shows a high return on investment for money spent on early childhood development.  The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that the internal real rate of return for the High Scope Perry project was 16%, stating that 80% of the benefits from early childhood education in this study went to the general public. The bank then goes on to challenge government officials to find other publically funded projects that have as high as a rate on return.

According to the National Institute of Early Education Research, during the 2010-2011 school year, the national average for public preschool attendance among four-year-olds was 28%. Many states that offer some form of public preschool have done so only for disadvantaged families, which is the same goal as what President Obama has proposed. While only 28% of four-year-olds may have been enrolled in a publically funded preschool during the 2010-2011 school year that number is double what is was in 2002.

Map of states providing public preschool. Courtesy of the National Institute for Early Education Research. click to enlarge.

Five states go further with a goal of enrolling every four-year-old in preschool. Georgia and Oklahoma were the first states to offer universal preschool, and are among the top states with regard to attendance.  In 2002, Florida passed legislation making it mandatory for every four-year-old to have access to publically funded preschool (the program did not begin until 2005), and while attendance is voluntary, as of the 2010-2011 school year, Florida had the large attendance rate for preschool in the nation, with 76% of all four-year-olds attending a publically funded program.  

There are a wide range of programs across the country for preschool, and while the extent to which public funding is available for early childhood education varies, only 11 states do not have a state-funded preschool program. It is interesting to note that of those 11 states, five of them were in the bottom 20% of Education Week’s annual State Report Card grades. And while not having a publically funded preschool program does not preclude a state’s education system from scoring higher (Hawaii was 16th out of 51) the two factors combined may show and overall attitude regarding the importance of education in some states.

The call and push for publically funded preschools is not just a liberal spending idea either. Alabama’s republican governor, Robert Bentley is the latest to join in the call, joining other traditionally red states, including Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma, that have already made universal publically funded preschool part of their educational system.

Private preschools can be expensive. While cost can vary greatly upon location, parent can expect to pay a couple of hundred dollars a month at minimum, and that may only be for a half-day program two or three days a week. Full-week programs can cost much more, and full-day full-week programs can run thousands of dollars a year. There are even private preschools whose annual tuition is as much as some colleges’.

Since the President’s proposed plan would make publically funded preschools available to low to moderate income family, there would be little need for change in many states. Those 11 states that have no public program now would see the largest change, and potentially reap the greatest benefit.


Follow Brighid on Twitter a @BrighidMoret and receive updates when new columns post on Facebook or Google+.. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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