In his State of the Union address, given in February, President Barack Obama called for universal early childhood education, citing studies that demonstrate that the “sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.” He then went on to say that less than 30% of four-year-olds are “enrolled in a high-quality preschool program,” which he clearly believes to be problematic. He seeks to “make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind,” which can only be understood as an admirable goal.
President Obama’s overall plan is to work with states to make high-quality preschool education available to every child in America. He estimates that every dollar invested “can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, [and] even reducing violent crime.” In his later released detailed plan for this proposal, he outlines three main components:
- A state-federal partnership to guarantee pre-K to all 4-year-olds in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, to be provided by school districts and other local partners, and to use instructors with the same level of education and training as K-12 instructions.
- A massively expanded Early Head Start program — building on the existing program, which has proven very effective in randomized controlled trials — which provides early education, child care, parental education, and health services to vulnerable children ages 0 to 3.
- Expanding Nurse Family Partnerships, a program that has also earned top marks in randomized trials, and which provides regular home visits from nurses to families from pregnancy through the child’s second birthday, intended to promote good health and parenting practices.
Professor James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, is presumed to be the author of the studies President Obama cited in his Address. His studies have concluded that preschool programs drastically affect children’s futures.
Two landmark studies demonstrate Heckman’s conclusions. The Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina compared low-income children who attended preschool with their peers who did not attend preschool. Researchers studied the groups for decades, and found that the children who enrolled in preschool, “scored higher on achievement tests, attained higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than controls.”
It is still uncertain when the President’s proposals might come into effect and the reaction toward his plan has been divided. Opponents to universal preschool education are likely not against the goal of education for our youth to help their future, but more likely are opposed to the idea of taxpayer’s dollars paying for it.