In the Spring of the 2006/2007 school year, Hillary Clinton made a stop to a Miami Beach elementary school where she tool student and the press that, “As president, I will establish universal pre-kindergarten education…so that every four-year-old child in America can attend a government-funded preschool” (Miller, 2007, p. 48).
Although this proclamation may seem somewhat odd given all of the challenges currently facing America’s public education system, the reality is that support and momentum for universal preschool programs has increased dramatically in recent years while more political and community leaders pushing for government sponsored universal preschool programs. With the realization the universal preschool programs have become such an important issue for the development of American public education, there is a direct impetus to examine the current reasons for such notable changes in attitudes toward these programs.
Using this as a basis for investigation, this research seeks to provide a more integral understanding of the reasons for universal preschool programs and the benefits and drawbacks of these proposals. This research concludes with a discussion of who should pay for these preschool programs and what steps should be taken to ensure that they are uniformly implemented in all school districts.
Literature Review Reasons for Universal Preschool Although the push for the development of universal preschool is not new, a critical review of the current interest in the type of schooling suggests that there are a myriad of reasons as to why policymakers and educators are aggressively pursing policies to develop these programs. With this in mind, it is important to provide a comprehensive review of the current literature by examining the wide range of reasons that have been offered for the development of these programs.
By examining the reasons behind the current push for universal preschool programs, it will be possible to demonstrate why these programs have become so popular in recent years. Ashford (2007) in her review of the popularity of universal preschool programs argues that these programs have become so important in recent years because of consistent data which suggests that notable achievement gaps in the current education system continue to persist.
As reported by this author, “The growing recognition that efforts to reduce the achievement gap must start way before children enter kindergarten is driving a renewed interest in universal preschool” (p. 22). Ashford goes on to report that the achievement gaps that manifest in the early levels of elementary education often persist over the course of the child’s education. Thus, alleviating these gaps is essential for improving outcomes for student achievement and educational success.
Dellinger, Osorio and Hybner (2007) in their review of universal preschool programs also report that educators are now widely supporting the mover toward this educational paradigm. As reported by these authors, “Claiming that it’s needed to help boost early test scores to meet NCLB’s testing requirements, [teacher’s] unions are urging states to provide costly preschool programs, pushing more toddlers into classrooms” (p. 17).
Dellinger and coworkers go on to report that the mandates set forth in under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation have placed so much pressure on educators to ensure learning outcomes for students that many educators now believe that universal preschool is the most salient means to help bolster learning outcomes and provide the support needed for students to perform well on NCLB assessments. In addition to the fact that educators now believe that universal preschool is imperative for improving outcomes of standardized tests required under NCLB, Dellinger, et al. (2007) further report that current data on academic outcomes for children enrolled in preschool programs suggests that these programs can have significant ramifications for improving long-term student achievement.
According to these authors, studies demonstrate that “four-year-olds benefit from high-quality preschool programs, since those who attend preschool are less likely to need special-education classes or to drop out of school, and they are more likely to graduate from high school” (p. 9). Thus, providing universal preschool programs will have marked benefits for ensuring the long-term success of all students enrolled in the public school system. Additionally, Zigler and Finn-Stevenson (2007) report that current problems with the American education system have been traced to the lack of quality and uniformity in preschool programs that are currently in place in the US.
As noted by these scholars: A major national problem is that we have no system in place o oversee the learning environments of young children before school entry. Rather, we have a mix of fragmented services, some providing part-day preschool and others all-day, year-round child care for children whose parents are working. Multiple funding streams support the programs, and a variety of provider contexts exist… Of significance is the general lack of quality that characterizes this nonsystem and the fact that the majority of preschool children attend child care programs that are of poor or mediocre quality (p. 176).
What this effectively suggests is that with no uniform standards in place, children are not receiving the same quality of preschool education. The development and implementation of a universal preschool program would help alleviate many of these disparities. Further, Tucker (2007) argues that the impetus to develop and implement a universal preschool system stems from the global changes that are occurring in the context of the job market. According to Tucker, the US is currently not able to compete with other countries such as China and Japan when it comes to well educated workforces.
Given that labors must compete for jobs in both a national and international context, providing students with the education competitive advantage that they need to secure jobs is essential not only for the well being and livelihood of the individual, but also for the successful development of the US economy. Thus, providing universal preschool would provide students with a competitive advantage for workforce development which would enable the US to compete more uniformly with other industrialized nations.
Other scholars have also considered the importance of preparing students to compete in the modern workforce. In particular one author reports that the achievement gaps between students in the US and students in foreign countries continue to grow because the US education system does not provide the right tools and supports for ensuring that students have the skills needed to compete with students from other countries (Preparing today’s…, 2007).
While this author reports that there are a host of changes that must be made to improve the quality and context of education offered in the US, the development and implementation of quality universal preschool programs is viewed as a central tenet for ensuring better outcomes for American students (Preparing today’s…, 2007).
Benefits of Universal Preschool With a basic review of the reasons spurring the development of universal preschool programs provided, it is now possible to consider the overall benefits that have been reported through the use of these programs. One scholar examining a recent study released from the Economic Policy Institute reports that a study of uniform preschool programs for 3 and 4-year-olds provide cost benefit outcomes that can be seen in less than 10 years after implementation (States reap…, 2007). These programs will in turn save states, not to mention the federal government, billions of dollars spanning several decades” (p. 7). The Economic Policy Institute further found that the turn around time for benefits is much faster in some cases; in universal preschool programs developed in Connecticut for example, the program pays off immediately, within one year of implementation (States reap…, 2007).
Hoff (2007) also attempts to provide some insight into the financial benefits that can be garnered though the development and implementation of universal preschool programs. As reported by this author, “The nation would reap more than twice the cost of wide-scale adoption of effective pre-K-12 educational interventions, resulting in a gain of $45 billion from increased tax revenues and reduced social costs over the lifetime of high school graduates…” (p. 5).
Although this data makes it difficult to quantify the specific returns that could be acquired through the implementation of new pre-Kindergarten programs, this data does indicate that when comprehensive pre-Kindergarten are included in public education, the total cost savings for educational services across the entire scope of public education can be markedly reduced. Another potential benefit of universal preschool that has been reported in the literature is the ability of these programs to help alleviate long-term social and economic problems for children.
Specifically, Duncan, Ludwig and Magnuson (2007) argued that for disadvantaged children, preschool programs can provide the support needed to reduce the impact of poverty. As reported by these authors, the preschool environment is one that is typically positive and markedly different from the one that children from poor, urban neighborhoods experience. This positive experience during early childhood, when the cognitive, behavioral and social development of the child is taking place can have a marked impact on the child, creating a solid foundation for academic success.
Students living in poverty that experience this type of success in education will be more successful and less likely to perpetuate the cycle of poverty over the long-term. Drawbacks of Universal Preschool Despite the fact that there is ample evidence which suggests that both financial and academic benefits can be garnered from the development and implementation of universal preschool programs, Buchanan (2007) notes that there are some notable drawbacks when it comes to securing the funding for these programs.
As reported by this author the cost of development universal preschool programs can be quite expensive, especially for school districts whose budgets are already stretched thin. In an effort to deal with this issue, Buchanan reports that 23 of the 42 states the currently have lottery programs in place have earmarked lottery monies for the development of new educational programs. While this gamble can provide needed funding for the development of new preschool programs, Buchanan asserts that utilizing lottery funds represents a notable gamble and there is no guarantee that the funding source will remain stable over the long-term.
In addition to the funding challenges that exist with respect to universal preschool programs, Jacobson (2007) reports that current efforts to understand the long-term impact of preschool programs indicates mixed results overall. Specifically, this author notes the results of Goldwater Institute study which demonstrated that “reading and math scores for 3rd graders who had been in preschool or full-day kindergarten were higher than those for students who had not been in such programs. But by the time the children who had attended full-day kindergarten or preschool reached 5th grade, their scores were comparable to those of other students” (p. 3).
What this effectively suggests is that while universal preschool may provide some short-term gains for academic achievement, there is no evidence which suggests these gains will be maintained over the long-term. Finally, Miller (2007) argues that developing universal preschool programs will not resolve the current educational gaps that are prevalent in America’s system of public education. According to this author, “On recent standardized language tests, fourth graders finished north of the 70th percentile, topping their peers in 26 of 35 countries” (p. 48).
Miller asserts that while this clearly suggests that there is room for improvement, larger gaps in education occur later in the educational system, suggesting that improving middle and high school education programs would have move value for effectively reducing the achievement gap. Miller asserts that early elementary education in the US does not need further support for achieving improved academic outcomes for students. Funding for Universal Preschool The final issue that must be addressed in the context of this investigation is funding for universal preschool.
A cursory overview of the current data on funding for universal preschool suggests that efforts to providing funding in this area should come from state and federal governments. Levin and Schwartz (2007)in his review of current preschool education programs notes that there are two segments of the population that currently receive support for preschool education: wealthy students whose parents can afford preschool education and children that live below the poverty line and qualify for federally funded preschool programs such as head start.
For families that have incomes that fall within the national average (approximately $42,000 annually) access to affordable, quality preschool is not possible. Thus, providing funding for all children through government programs appears to be the most salient means to ensure that all students have access to the uniform, quality preschool. Due to the fact that the development of universal preschool programs would require the incorporation of these programs into existing school districts, state governments would bear the most financial responsibility for these programs.
However, as reported by Ashford (2007) the federal government could provide grant monies to offset the costs of universal preschool programs and ease the financial burdens that these programs may place on less affluent states. Similar funding structures are currently in place for Children’s Health Insurance Programs (CHIP) which provide free or low-cost health instance for children and teenagers. Although this type of funding scheme has been widely supported by proponents of universal preschool, other methods of funding for these types of preschool programs have been proposed as well.
Witte (2007) in his review of the specific programs that should be used for funding universal preschool argues that a voucher system should be used in order to ensure that children from low income and middle class families have access to and can receive a quality preschool education. Under this proposed voucher system, Witte notes that students that are unable to afford preschool would be given vouchers by the state to attend the preschool of their choice.
This type of program would help ensure that the state and federal governments could reduce the overall cost of burden of developing and maintaining universal preschool programs for all students. Additionally under this program, families from higher socioeconomic backgrounds would be required to help defray the costs of their child’s preschool education. Conclusion Synthesizing all of the data provided in this investigation, it becomes evident that the push for universal preschool has been supported by educators, policymakers and parents all across the United States.
Despite what appears to be widespread support for these programs however, research does indicate that there are some notable drawbacks which continue to limit the efficacy and development of these programs. In addition to the fact that universal preschool programs carry with them considerable costs, research on these programs suggests that the benefits of universal preschool may be significantly limited over the long-term. Given the concrete barriers that exist when it comes to developing universal preschool programs, it is easy to understand why these programs have not become part of federal policy on public education.
The challenges that modern students face in terms of both meeting educational standards and competing with students from other countries clearly warrants changes to improve public education. While current research suggests that universal preschool may provide some support for improving overall educational outcomes, the reality is that only time will tell if these programs are able to maintain their popularity. As costs increase and funding for these programs becomes an issue, policymakers, parents and taxpayers will have to make critical choices about the efficacy of these programs and their importance for improving public education.
Courtney from Study Moose