Preschool in America

July 10th, 2019

For many families across the United States, the back-to-school season means purchasing school supplies and meeting new teachers. For the parents of young children sending their children off to preschool for the first time, a number of other factors warrant consideration, such as the availability of a preschool in their area, the cost of preschool and whether a preschool has either a religious or secular affiliation.

In recent years, Alabama is one state that has been striving to make quality preschool more available. Working with a bipartisan coalition of state representatives, business owners and teachers, the Alabama School Readiness Alliance (ASRA), which was recently featured in a Mother Jones article, wants to expand both funding and access to high quality preschool. ASRA has shown that children from impoverished backgrounds who attended quality preschool scored 9% higher on state tests in sixth grade than those who didn’t attend preschool and 13% higher in third grade, according to collected data. Upon visiting a preschool, Alabama state senator Trip Pittman shared, “The results I saw were dramatic.”

Overall, Alabama educational rankings haven’t been in the top tier compared to the rest of the country. In 2017, the Annie C. Casey foundation ranked Alabama’s educational system 42nd in the United States. But Alabama’s investment in preschool is trying to change that. Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of the ASRA, said, “People look at Alabama and don’t think of it as No. 1 in anything. . . . But we’re very proud to be No. 1 in pre-K.”

Funding preschool

Unlike K–12 education, preschool isn’t mandatory at the federal level, so funding for preschool initiatives varies from state to state. The money to pay for preschools comes from a variety of sources, including the federal government (primarily through the Head Start program), state governments and local jurisdictions at the county and city level. Even within state governments, there are a number of different funding models, including block grants, which are lump sums given to local jurisdictions to use at their discretion, and general funds, which are a direct source of funding built into state budgets.

A 2018 funding report from the Education Commission of the States finds that some states such as South Carolina support pre-K through a sales tax, while others such as Georgia and Virginia fund preschool through the lottery. Interestingly, Missouri is currently the only state to fund preschool education through revenues from non-lottery gambling.

Since there’s no federal requirement for preschool education, the disparity between preschool programs can vary significantly from state to state. Only two states, Florida and Vermont, currently have universal preschool programs, meaning that these programs are available to all students and don’t have funding or enrollment caps. While several other states provide something close to universal pre-K, they do have funding or enrollment caps and districts where preschool isn’t available.

The benefits of preschool are well-documented and show considerable gains for those who attend. Even so, the gulf in funding for preschool is especially large in states where legislatures are skeptical of its worth. In 2014, for example, Representative Paul Ryan argued that preschool was “failing to prepare children for school,” Mother Jones reported. Recently, the Trump administration proposed budget cuts that would eliminate federal preschool funding, though these cuts are unlikely to go into effect.

Long-term benefits of preschool

James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics, believes that preschool is the single best investment the public can make to gain positive returns for the overall society. His analysis of preschool programs showed that for every dollar spent on preschool for a disadvantaged child, there was a return on investment of between $30 and $300 over the lifetime of that child.

“The cost to society, say, of courts and crime, is lowered,” Heckman said in an interview with NPR. “The cost of educating kids who are unruly and undisciplined in schools, that goes down. The benefits that the kid contributes to earnings and society, that goes up.”

This is primarily the case because preschool teaches children noncognitive, or soft, skills. In addition to ABCs and 123s, preschool teaches children how to listen to instructions, learn to keep big emotions in check and practice self-discipline. Activity stations help children think about planning — like which activity they want to do next — and time management. In Alabama, these soft skills are being taught through creative play. Teachers instruct children in emotional awareness and social skills, skills that are often assumed or taken for granted in much of society.

Yet these oft-overlooked soft skills make a significant impact. The NPR piece tells of a North Carolina study called the Abecedarian Project, which took children from a disadvantaged background and followed them through preschool and beyond. Other children from the same neighborhood weren’t placed in preschool and were used as a control group. The results of the study were astounding:

  • 45% of the children who did not enroll in preschool became parents at 19 years or younger, compared to only 26% of the preschool group. 
  • 25% of the preschool children went on to attend and complete a four-year college program, while only 6% of the control group did. 

According to Heckman, preschool also translates into increased lifetime earnings. Referring to another preschool study, he said, “You look at the monthly earnings on the job. The control group is earning about two-thirds of what the treatment [preschool] group is earning.” Can all of this progress really come down to preschool? In Alabama, researchers, teachers, businesspeople and state legislators of all political affiliations say yes.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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