A new study of preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma provides some of the strongest evidence yet that it’s past time for Indiana to join the move to state-supported early childhood education. The study, presented at a conference of the Brookings Institution, found the programs produced a range of benefits for children and families:
- Academic gains that continued into the eighth grade.
- Increased enrollment in preschool, especially for children from low-income families.
- More time spent by low-income parents reading, talking and playing with their kids.
- Less money spent on child care, leaving more for other activities.
Co-author Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach discussed the study last week in Bloomington as part of Indiana University’s Economics of Education Seminar series. She said it provides solid support for President Barack Obama’s Preschool for All proposal. “It makes so much sense from a policy perspective,” she said.
Previous studies, including analysis by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, have found significant benefits from preschool. But skeptics argue that much of the research is based on small, short-lived and relatively expensive programs like Michigan’s Perry Preschool. The new study focuses on large-scale programs that any state could replicate. Georgia and Oklahoma are unusual in having provided nearly universal access to free, high-quality preschool since the 1990s.
In perhaps their most significant finding, Northwestern professor Schanzenbach and Elizabeth Cascio of Dartmouth show that academic benefits from preschool persist for nearly a decade, resulting in improved math scores for Oklahoma and Georgia eighth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Some earlier studies suggested test-score improvement from preschool “fades out” by third or fourth grade, but other benefits, such as social skills that lead to greater life success, last to adulthood.
A cost-benefit analysis – not part of the report on the Brookings website but shared by Schanzenbach at IU – estimates that every $1 spent on the state preschool programs produces $2 in returns. And that’s just in benefits to the students through projected lifetime earnings. It doesn’t include societal benefits such as reduced crime and welfare spending and lower health-care costs associated with improved education.
The researchers reported results separately for families of high and low socio-economic status (SES), using the educational attainment of mothers as a proxy for family income. The programs increased the enrollment of low-SES children in preschool by about 20 percent. Enrollment also increased for high-SES children, but there was a decline the number that enrolled in private preschools.
Brookings, in a news release, says the apparent shift from private to public preschools suggests states may want to provide free preschool for poor families but not for families that can afford to pay. It’s certainly legitimate to ask if we should create a new, taxpayer-funded benefit for middle-class families that can live without it. On the other hand, Schanzenbach asks: If preschool subsidies are limited to the poor, will high-SES parents send their kids to separate, private preschools? If they do, will that result in class-segregated public preschools that aren’t very effective?
Indiana, of course, is one of only 10 states that don’t provide any public funding for preschool, so almost any system we create will be a step forward.
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