George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Why Pre-K Education is Worth the Cost

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It is no secret that we are in the midst of an economic crisis. The federal deficit is out of control. State budgets are hurting. Cuts must be made. But we have to make these cuts smartly.

So I am deeply discouraged to see that, across the nation -- from New Jersey to Iowa, Georgia to Colorado -- lawmakers are talking about cutting funds for early childhood education. At the federal level, Republicans in the House of Representatives have proposed large reductions in key early learning investments, including Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care Development Block Grant.

The recent two-week budget measure which did avert a government shutdown, starts these cuts -- $66 million was cut from Even Start, a grant program that supports local family literacy projects that integrate early childhood education, adult literacy, parenting education, and interactive parent and child literacy activities for low-income families and teen parents.

Evidence for Early Education

These proposed cuts are quite discouraging for most education advocates because of their impact on the academic achievement of young children. But they should also be discouraging for all Americans, given the benefits that preschool programs have for society. Consider just some of the recent evidence on the fiscal impact of early childhood education:

  • A recent evaluation of Chicago Public Schools' federally funded Child Parent Centers (CPCs) found that for every dollar invested in the preschool program, nearly $11 is projected to return to society over participants' lifetimes - the equivalent of an 18 percent annual return. Program participants had significantly higher rates of attendance at 4-year colleges, employment in higher-skilled jobs, earnings and tax revenues, as well as lower rates of felony arrests, special education placement and grade retention.
  • Michigan's Great Start Readiness Program, which supports preschool for at-risk children, has saved the state at least $1 billion over the past 25 years, thanks to outcomes including reduced grade repetition and special education placements, crime and criminal justice, welfare spending, and unemployment benefits, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
  • A study of the famous Perry Preschool Program -- conducted over 40 years -- found that society got back $16 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program. In addition to educational outcomes, the study found that high quality early education resulted in adults having higher earnings, a higher employment rate and a lower crime rate at age 40.

All this makes it so frustrating to hear about cuts to early childhood programs. Once again, it seems like we are seeing short-term thinking with a long-term impact.

Banding Together

Of course, some policymakers recognize this and are working creatively to ensure students, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged, get the benefit of preschool. For example, one district overcame a funding challenge to develop an innovative pre-school program. In 2005, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Mayor Walt Maddox, who had campaigned on the need to get children ready for school so that they would not become a burden on the community later in life, formed the City of Tuscaloosa PreK Initiative.

Various groups within the University of Alabama pledged classroom volunteers, comprehensive health screenings, weekly music lessons and development of a public awareness campaign on the importance of early childhood education (to which local media donated air time). A collaborative pledged to provide free vision screenings. Community members made individual donations. And the city government earmarked taxes for preschool.

As a result, more children are entering kindergarten ready to learn. Participants in the program receive two balanced meals a day, as well as time to socialize and experience the arts. They outperform their peers on early tests in grade school. And the district believes that without the program, both the number of students referred to special education and the number of students retained in the primary grades would increase.

Some in the community are concerned that these results do not justify the investment, but for now, area leaders are holding strong, recognizing the evidence that pre-k programs have a great benefit to their community in the short and long-term.

And others do, too. President Obama recognized it in his recent budget proposal (while I have concerns with some sections of this budget, I think he got this right). Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders did, too, in introducing the Foundations for Success Act (which would establish a grant process in which winners would provide childcare and early education to all children six weeks through kindergarten) in February. I wish more were as far-sighted.

Please share with the Edutopia community your thoughts and ideas on this issue!

Related Resources

The National Preschool Debate Intensifies (article)

STEM in Preschool (group discussion)

Are Practical (and Affordable) Swedish Preschools Better? (article)

High School Child Care (video)

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Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

K5 Learning's picture
K5 Learning
Online reading & math enrichment for K-5.

There's a maxim in engineering that fixing things in the conceptual stage costs $1, in the design stage $10, in the construction phase $100 and in the operating stage $1,000.

Fixing the educational system with limited budgets must start with early education.

nicole's picture

I was working in a kindergarten classroom and I saw first hand how important pre k is. Kids are expected to know so much at an early age that they are so behind if they dont have a good pre k program as a foundation. The two kids that had never attended school in my class have been struggling the whole time and are way behind. Not just academically but socially. They are trying to adjust to the whole school thing and there just isnt time for adjusting that comes from pre k. Also the basics as far as letter names and sounds is such a fight for them to learn and to catch up. They are in extra one on one groups twice a day and they are still behind. They are lacking the foundation.

Angel's picture

I am a Kindergaten teacher and see the benefits derived from a quality Pre-K program on a daily basis. Children who receive a rich preschool experience are more equipped academically and socially for what our government demands of them. If we cut out these valuable Pre-K programs we are bound to see the negative consequence in the future. In other words, a fundamental program can help stop problems for our children before they truely begin versus fixing them later down the road. I value and appreciate these pre-programs not only as an educator, but also as a parent. I want my child and the children I teach to have a positive start in their education, not one of struggles due to a lack of a foundational experience.

Jamie's picture
English Language Transition Kindergarten teacher from WA

As a Kindergarten teacher, I also get to experience the academic/social difference between students who attend Pre-K and the students who do not. As educators, we are always trying to find a way to lower the achievement gap in student learning. I think that one way to lower the achievement gap is for children to experience preschool/Pre-K. As a teacher, I am aware of the need for students to attend Pre-K based on children social/academic needs. However, prior to reading this blog, I never thought about the long-term benefits of a Pre-K program (i.e. college attendance, employment, and decreased rates criminal activity).

Catherine Ness's picture

I believe that Pre-K is an important educational program that should not be cut. Our children are expected to learn a lot at an early age. They need to learn academic, communicative, and social skills in order to interact cooperatively with their peers in a learning environment. As a first grade teacher, I greatly appreciate the curriculum provided by caring early childhood educators in the Pre-K program. I can identify with accuracy those students who attend Pre-K. They come to me with essential reading, listening, and social skills and are prepared for the first grade curriculum. They are ahead of their peers who did not attend Pre-K. Even with Kindergarten being a bridge between Pre-K and Kindergarten, I find that the skills learned in Pre-K provide a solid foundation for future learning.

Jamie's picture

It is very sad to know that they are making all of these cuts in education. I recently switched districts to teach kindergarten because we were moving to all day. The governor of Ohio has now decided that he is not going to mandate all day and we are going back to half day. We have spent the year comparing data and discussing the differences in the education for the students attending all day. It is so sad to think of how far we have come and to realize we will now be moving backwards. The same is true for prek. We do not require prek and the difference between the children who attend and do not is unbelievable. Hopefully we are able to shrink the achievment gap between the two.

Kenitha Davis's picture
Kenitha Davis
I am a Kindergarten teacher from Cartersville, GA

After teaching kindergarten, I truly understand the importance of children going to pre-k. It helps them develop academically and socially. I have seen the difference between students who attend pre-K and those that do not. I believe this not only helps our children, but it allow parents to work and not have to pay for daycare, which for some families daycare cost is more than they make a month. I strongly agree with the mayor from Alabama, that if we do away with pre-K, we will be creating a burden on our communities.

Michelle's picture
Kindergarten teacher from Harlem, GA

I am not sure how other areas run Prek programs. In our district, Prek programs are available through the public schools as well as daycare centers. The number of programs at public schools is very limited. The area I live/teach in is more of a rural area so the schools in our area offer more programs through the schools since we do not have daycare centers as an option. Our county considered removing the program from the public schools a few years ago, but decided this was not the best option. Now, we are waiting for the decision on the program again. As a kindergarten teacher, I see the effects of the Prek program everyday. Kindergarten is no longer the place where students learn to color in the lines and share toys as it was when I attended my half-day program years ago. Students are expected to be reading and writing by the time they enter first grade. Many students, however, can not identify letters of the alphabet, identify letters in their name or even hold a pencil when they eneter kindergarten let alone start learning to read and write. For the students that have never been in a structured learning environment, the first few months of the year are spent teaching these students how to be students. If students are going to be prepared to learn in kindergarten, there must be a prek program to get them prepared.

Kristy Tallon's picture

As a preschool teacher in Florida, I am unfortunately aware of the pending budget cuts and the sense of doom they bring. Research shows the importance and critical need for structure preschool programs yet it seems to be one of the first areas to look at when discussing budget cuts. The expectations when entering Kindergarten are at such a level that it is really a disservice to the student who did not attend a preschool program. I see such a difference in my little friends from the age of four when they enter my room to the age of five when they leave. They are truly little sponges who are waiting to be filled with knowledge and experiences. What will happen to these friends if these programs are no longer available? How will they be able to manage the high expectations of the Kindergarten classroom? Not only are academics taught in my room but also the concepts of sharing, cooperation, empathy, and classroom behaviors that can be learned in no other place but a classroom.

Andy S's picture

Excellent write-up. I have always been in favor of preschool education having seen the difference between students who attend preschools and those who do not. I am glad to know all of these additional benefits of pre-K for children.

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