Critics of an expanded government role in preschool say the country has plenty of experience with federal preschool education — the Head Start program — and the results are lackluster.
“Overall, there is very little evidence of lasting benefits from Head Start,” said Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank. “We’ve had Head Start for 50 years, and we still have an achievement gap. On the whole, the program doesn’t seem to have accomplished what it set out to accomplish.”
Head Start, created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, is designed for 3- to 5-year-old children from low-income families. Head Start services vary by location, but they include medical care, meals, social services and education. The federal government runs another program, Early Head Start, that provides similar services for pregnant women and children up to age 3.
Last year, federal officials released a study of Head Start that found for most children in the program, academic benefits faded by third grade. There was one exception: Children from at-risk families who enrolled at age 3 showed sustained academic gains through third grade.
The Obama administration has begun cracking down on ineffective Head Start providers, notifying 254 of the 1,600 providers that they were “deficient” in terms of quality and would have to compete for funding, instead of getting automatic renewals.
In the Washington region, there’s a wide range in publicly funded early childhood education. In wealthy Loudoun County, about 1,000 low-income, at-risk and special education children are enrolled in preschool. Far more students start school with half-day kindergarten at age 5. In the District, which has a much higher poverty rate, about 13,000 children are enrolled in full-day, publicly funded preschool, open to any 3- and 4-year-olds.
“What D.C. is doing with 3-year-olds is incredibly atypical relative to the rest of the country,” said Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
D.C.’s preschool program, which operates through a lottery system, costs taxpayers $122 million annually, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
When Ivette Basterrechea, a lawyer and consultant who lives in Anacostia, won a space in the lottery for her 3-year-old daughter several years ago, she didn’t hesitate.
“The big motivation was not so much because we thought preschool education was so great in D.C., but we wanted to get out of day care so we wouldn’t have to pay,” she said. “I don’t think I’m alone in that.”
Yet for 4-year-olds, “I don’t know why anyone would not want to send their child to preK,” she said. “It’s not a choice. It’s hugely beneficial.”
The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, is calling for universal access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, with costs shared between the federal and state governments. For infants up to age 3, the center wants an expansion of federal child care subsidies and a doubling of Early Head Start programs.
That plan would initially cost $98.4 billion for preschool, $84.2 billion for child-care subsidies and $11.5 billion for Early Head Start, spread over about 10 years. The programs would cost about $25 billion a year to operate.
Neera Tanden, the center’s president, said investment in early childhood education amounts to “pennies” compared to the rest of the federal budget. She called it crucial to the country’s longterm economic health.
“China and India are investing tremendous amounts in the pre-school years,” she said. “We live in a global competition where people are looking for the best workers. This is about insuring that kids don’t fall behind before they even enter the race.”
Policymakers and education advocates caution that the quality of preschool in the United States varies wildly, creating uneven results.
“The challenge we have is how do we ramp those up in intensity and ramp up support for teachers and for kids in these programs,” said Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “What we don’t need is another level of bureaucracy these programs need to deal with.”