Obama’s universal preschool plan: what’s at stake?

After President Obama’s recent State of the Union call to “make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America” and his ensuing proposal for a national Universal Pre-K plan, a number of his claims and the studies behind them came under fire. Many have asked, why not focus on parenting, social services, or more advanced grade levels? How will this plan be cost effective for taxpayers, and how will the U.S. Education Dept. fare when working with teachers at the local level to develop curricula? And what about Obama’s claim that for every $1 invested in preschool, there is a $7 returned value to society?

Putting political maneuvers aside, we can all agree (and countless studies have shown) that good early education holds significant value for children and for society as a whole – but that design of education programs is a crucial factor. The issue is certainly worth debating as a nation. As committed advocates for healthy and productive early education programs and a member of the Bay Area community, we at Nomura wanted to sort out some of the claims of Obama’s plan and provide the sources cited, so that parents might understand the state of our early education system and decide for themselves.

A few Preschool stats:

  • In the 2010-2011 school year, 28% of all 4-year-olds in the U.S. were enrolled in state-financed preschool programs (NIEER)
  • Only five states have a stated objective of offering preschool slots to all 4-year-olds
  • About 1.1 million students are enrolled in fed-financed Head Start programs

Obama’s Proposal:

  • Upgrade preschool system through cost-sharing partnership (matching dollars) with the states
  • High-quality public preschool to all 4-year-olds from families at or below 200% of the poverty level
  • Incentive for states to broaden participation to include additional middle-class families, who could pay on a sliding scale of tuition
  • State programs would be required to employ well-trained teachers paid comparably to K-12 teachers, provide small classes and meet statewide standards for early learning
  • Expand Early Head Start, the federal program designed to prepare children from low-income families for school, broadening quality childcare for infants and toddlers

Claim: For every $1 invested in preschool, there is a $7 returned value to society.
Explanation and Source: “The most famous and frequently cited program was conducted at Perry Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Mich., during the 1960s, where the teachers focused on a creative process in which low-income children were encouraged to plan, initiate and discuss their learning activities. In addition to teaching the children for 2.5 hours during the school day, the teachers regularly visited their homes to reinforce the lessons and forge partnership with parents. Followed into adulthood, the Perry students were found to have lower dropout and arrest rates and higher incomes than those who had not attended preschool. Research […] concluded in 2009 that each $1 invested in the Perry program had returned a value of $7 to $12 to society.”
Argument: “Unfortunately, preschool researchers say that few programs meet the standards of the Perry system. With mediocrity the norm for many programs — and with many educators habituated to mediocrity — a new federal preschool initiative is likely to come under heavy pressure to compromise downward.”  
(NYTimes.com article, Feb 15 2013.)
Counter Argument: “The evidence for preschool’s success is substantial and far beyond the Perry Preschool Program. A recent meta-analysis summarizing 123 studies found overwhelming evidence of long-term returns in the U.S.” (NIEER statement, Feb 14, 2013.)

Claim: Obama has touted the success of universal preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma: “studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.”
Explanation and Source: Georgia and Oklahoma are two states with stable universal preschool programs, which follow similar guidelines to Obama’s proposal, including teachers with B.A.’s in early education and small classroom sizes. Georgia’s program came first, and its first students are now 20 years old.
Argument: It is too early to tell how those who participated in these state programs have fared, given that they are new. Claims for more stable families or better job preparedness may be premature. (FactCheck.org article, Feb 20 2013.)
Counter Argument: “Abroad, where universal pre-K is often the norm, a number of studies have found that all children benefit through adulthood (higher achievement and greater earnings) even though the most disadvantaged benefit more.” ((NIEER statement, Feb 14, 2013.)

And of course, many questions circle around the proposal’s budget, which should be released sometime in March 2013.

For more thoughts on budget plans, the nitty gritty of the proposal, and the state of preschool education in the U.S., we suggest the following: