Yesterday was the first day of school in New York City, and attending classes for the first time were 51,500 4-year-olds, the first enrollees in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for universal pre-kindergarten education in the city. The city’s expansion is a high-profile attempt to realize a longtime liberal priority. President Obama has called (in the State of the Union, no less) for a nationwide expansion of pre-K, but in this era of gridlock, the policy will be tested first at smaller levels of government.
The good news, as Conor P. Williams writes, is that “research is near-unanimous that well-designed early education has tremendously positive effects.” Kids who attend pre-K, Williams writes, are “less likely to repeat a grade, be classified for special education, drop out, have kids out of wedlock, wind up on welfare or end up in prison.” Much of the research behind calls for universal pre-K comes from James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago. Heckman’s research on a well-known pre-K program for low-income families in Ypsilanti, Michigan demonstrated, as Bloomberg Businessweek has reported, “a ‘return to society’ at an annual rate of 7 percent to 10 percent.” That number represents a gain for taxpayers—in the form of lower court and welfare costs, for example—but it also signals vastly-improved life outcomes for recipients of the subsidized education.
The catch: these outcomes only obtain when the programs are well-designed, and integrating them smoothly into the existing K-12 model can be challenging. As the Wall Street Journal reports, de Blasio plans to add 20,000 more students next year on his way to full enrollment, and “many educators applaud that goal but express concern that adding sites so fast will lead to uneven quality and some poorly prepared teachers.” And even with the rising demand for pre-K teachers, persistent wage gaps can make it difficult to recruit talented educators. As Dana Goldstein reported late last year, one leading pre-K organization in New York City pays its starting pre-K head teachers just $35,000 per year. Starting kindergarten teachers with the same level of education can earn far more—and “that income gap persists over the course of a career in early childhood education.” This gap lures some educators out of the profession altogether. Talented pre-K teachers, Goldstein writes, “often aspire to move into K-12 schools or even to leave education altogether and become nannies for affluent families, where they can earn twice as much.”
If implemented properly, pre-K education can generate major benefits and improve lives. In the long run, it may prove to be one of our most effective policy weapons against deepening inequality. But that’s unlikely to happen if wage gaps force the educators of poor children to become the nannies of rich ones. Or if promising young children, after finishing an effective pre-K program, are set loose into a broken education system. For pre-K to deliver on its promise, the rest of a child’s time in school must be effective as well. That means that even if policymakers get pre-K right, their work is far from done. “Following high-quality pre-K with a subpar, poorly-resourced education,” as Williams writes, “is like easing up on the gas and coasting.”