Importance Of Early Childhood Education

Access to high quality education prior to kindergarten is key for children’s development. According to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a well-respected research and advocacy organization, the earliest years of a child’s life are the time of greatest brain development and opportunity. Children’s early experiences and environments build the foundation for future health, education and life outcomes . CDF’s vision for early education is that every family, regardless of income, has access to a continuum of high-quality, comprehensive early childhood opportunities that meet their needs and the needs of their families.

Unfortunately, business as usual does not support this goal, but rather parents are often forced to make the choice between working and early education for their children. It seems counter intuitive that a low to middle income parents ability to work is so intrinsically correlated to their children’s ability to go to school, if a parent works their family cannot afford early education options. This paper explores the important role early education plays in children’s development, anchors early education as a justice issue and explores the political landscape to establish ways in which Missouri might choose to implement a more equitable option for children and their families.

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Importance of Early Education

The first five year’s of a child’s life are a time of great importance, it is a time when children’s brains develop more rapidly that at any other point in the lifespan (Children’s Defense Fund, 2017, p.26). Given the significance of this time in a child’s life, it is a national tragedy that parental income is a barrier to quality educational opportunities.

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Studies show that children who experience high-quality early childhood programs are more likely to graduate from high school, hold a job, and make more money and are less likely to commit a crime than peers who do not (Children’s Defense Fund, 2017, p.26). One of the foundational studies in the field of early education is the Ypsilanti Michigan longitudinal study. The Perry Preschool Project, carried out from 1962 to 1967 provided high-quality preschool education to three- and four – year old African American children living in poverty and who were assessed to be at high risk of school failure . Though a relatively small study, including 128 three – and four- year olds, it has been found that those who had been enrolled in the preschool program were, at age forty, more likely to hold a job, had a higher income, and were less likely to have committed crimes than their contemporaries who had not received the same education .

More recently than the previously mentioned Ypsilanti study, a recent analysis of 84 preschool programs concluded, that on average children gain about a third of a year of additional language, reading and math learning in preschool (Yoshikawa, et al, 2013, p. 1).

Across the country and within Missouri, many low income parents find themselves making difficult, and nearly impossible decisions for their children. As low income individuals begin to earn more money, many parents become ineligible for child care subsidies which had previously helped families access quality child care. Without this support, parents are forced to choose whether their jobs, that bring in this income, are worth the necessary child care costs. This is particularly salient at the time of this writing as MO voters just voted to raise the minimum wage. As the minimum wage increases, even a modest amount, the necessary support families receive will dramatically decrease. Approximately 44,000 Missourians will be affected. Importantly, more than 7 in 10 of the workers who will be affected are women, many of whom are raising children. Increasing minimum wage to a living wage is an important justice issue, but it can’t be done alone Clark Fox Policy Institute, 2018, p.5).

According to the Clark Fox Policy Institute, experiencing poverty during childhood has deep and lasting effects (Clark Fox Policy Institute, 2018, p.5). Children living in families who earn a living wage tend to perform better on tests, and graduate from high school at higher rates (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, 1997, p. 56). Interestingly, children from low income families who enroll in preschool, such as a Head Start program, there are limited differences between those who received preschool and those who did not on tests of academic achievement (Yoshikawa, et al, 2013, p. 1). However, evidence from long-term evaluations suggests that there are long-term differences that include high school graduation rates, earnings, crime levels, and teen pregnancy. It is a current area of research to explore why these long-term effects occur even when test scores tend to be similar.

Quality preschool is a profitable investment for states. The Perry Preschool Program study, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers and the Tulsa’s preschool program range from three to seven dollars saved for the state for every dollar spent on the child’s education (Yoshikawa, et al, 2013, p. 1).

As is the case across the country, in Missouri access to early education is an issue of racial justice and equity. As established early education is key to the child’s development and can have lifelong impacts. Despite the important role that early education plays, access is intrinsically tied to financial capacity. In Missouri, the average annual cost for an infant to attend infant center-based childcare is $9,100. This becomes an issue of equity because 19 percent or 261,353 of MO’s children lived in poverty in 2016 (Children’s Defense Fund, 2017, p.29). Unsurprisingly the distribution of poverty is not equitable. 37 percent of Black and 31 percent of Hispanic children were poor, while only 14 percent of White children lived in poverty (Children’s Defense Fund, 2017, p.29).. If Black families earn an average of $29,000, the $9,100 cost of infant care is prohibitive. Families are forced to make choices among a series of bad options.

Existing Programs/ Models Overview

Early Head Start and Head Start are both federally-funded high quality early childhood programs that provide comprehensive services to low income children and families. Services include child care, mental health, nutritional and other developmental services that connect poor children and their families with additional community resources. Though both are high quality programs with positive results, they are restricted by limited funding. A such only 5 percent of eligible infants and toddlers are served by Early Head Start programming. Additionally, Head Start only services 54 percent of eligible 2 and 4 year olds (Children’s Defense Fund, 2017, p.27).

As the federally funded early childhood programs struggle to meet the demand state funded preschool programs have come to pick up the mantle and meet the needs of children and families.

The National Institute for Early Education Research has established evidence-based quality standards for preschool programs for 3 and 4 year olds. The 2017 report, based on the 2016-17 school year finds first that state-funded preschool program enrollment has exceeded 1.5 million children, 33 percent of 4-year-ds and 5 percent of 3 years-olds. State funding has grown two percent year over year. Despite the increased enrollment and funding, the number of state funded preschool programs to meet all 10 quality standard benchmarks increased by only one, to three early education programs. More disheartening is that ten programs met fewer than half of the quality standards, and seven states to not invest any state dollars in preschool (NIEER, 2017).

As you can see in the map below, the percent of any single state’s population of four year olds enrolled in State run preschool varies greatly. There is little uniformity across the country in terms of the number of children served, and in the type of the model used.

Qualities of State and City Preschool Programs

Six states that the National Institute for Early Education has identified as State’s to watch in a positive sense after having expressed intention to provide universal pre-K to children in the state, are West Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, Alabama, New York, and Illinois. Of these states three have largely achieved the goal to provide universal Pre-K, WV, VT, and WI. WV has enrolled about two thirds of four year olds, and ten percent of 3 year olds. The states standards among all six states are relatively high, as is funding provided to this program. Additionally, the benchmarks are promising; gradually each state has increased the number of hours of preschool each year during which children are being served (NIEER, 2017, p. 23).

Over the past two decades Wisconsin’s program has achieved pre-K for 71%-90% of the preschool aged children (NIEER, 2017, p. 23). This program arose organically, gradually increasing the number of children enrolled through increased local demand. Wisconsin’s program has been funded through State start-up grants, and the state constitutions provision for four year olds. It has been suggested that WI’s approach, of slow and steady program growth over 20 years could be a model for other states willing to add pre-K to the State K-12 funding formula (NIEER, 2017, p. 23).

The Illinois model is also an interesting model to learn from. In 2010 the program served 32% of 4-yeear-olds in the state. Unfortunately, the program impact has declined, in 2016-2017 school year the state served 26% of 4-year-olds. Over this period funding per pupil also dropped. Illinois demonstrates the fragile balancing act that must occur between program quality, and expansion (NIEER, 2017, p.23). The Illinois state preschool model is funded through the Federal Governments Preschools Development Grant. They were awarded $226 million for one year, and it is renewable for four years (Illinois State Board of Education, 2018). The State Departments of Education and Health and Human Services administer the Illinois program. In addition to the federal funds, in 2017 the State began matching federal funds.

To participate in the Illinois preschool program youth must meet eligibility. 75% of the children enrolled must be 4 years old by September 1st, and in families 200% of the Federal Poverty Line. Children who are given preference include children from homeless families, children from families below 50% of the Federal Poverty Line, Children involved with the child welfare system, and children with IEP’s (Illinois State Board of Education, 2018).

Characteristics of Missouri Preschool Access

Missouri struggles with entirely inequitable access to early education. For the 2016-2017 school year Missouri is ranked 42nd of all states for access for four year olds to preschool. During that same school year only 1,845 or 2.5 percent of four year olds were enrolled in state pre kindergarten. Even fewer, only 801 children, or 1.1% of 3 year olds were enrolled (NIEER, 2018, p. 13).

The Missouri Head Start Association is a statewide non-profit association that serves as the unified voice of Head Start providers across the state. Nobel Prize Winner in Economics James Heckman estimates the lifelong return on investment from quality early childhood programs is more than 13 percent a year for every dollar invested (Children’s Defense Fund, 2017, p. 26). The MO Head Start association estimates that for every $1 invested in Head Start the state reaps a ROI ranging from $7 to $9 (MO Head Start Association). Despite the documented results, in 2016 Early Head Start served only 5 percent of eligible infants and toddlers and Head Start served only 54 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds (Children’s Defense Fund, 2017, p. 27).

St. Louis Landscape

Despite the bleak landscape described above, there is momentum within the St. Louis child advocate and the education community to build state funded early education options for 4 and possibly 3 year olds. Key among the considerations are funding options. The Federal Preschool Development Grants support states to either build or enhance a preschool program infrastructure or to expand high quality preschool programs in targeted communities (U.S. Department of Education). Currently Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Montana and Nevada have received the development grant and Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia (U.S Department of Education).

Development Grants plan to foster state partners to ensure collaboration with school districts, and other early learning providers, to align preschool programs within a birth through –third-grade continuum of services, and to create sustainable programs by coordinating existing early learning funds. Grants awarded for the development stage of the program range from approximately $2 million to $20 million.

Certainly this funding option is appealing, it would be a huge financial boost, but may not be the best path for St. Louis and for MO. To compete applicant states must submit a letter signed by the Governor or an authorized representative. Though some of our neighboring Republican majority States have competed for the award, it may not be a feasible path forward for MO.

Another funding option that has been used to bring early childhood education to cities is through sales and property taxes. In 2006 Denver voters passed a sales tax to help the families of 4- year-olds pay for preschool. Key factors that allowed Denver Referendum 1A, Denver Kids Tax to pass was that the mayor, Mayor John Huckenlooper agreed to champion a version of the “kids tax”. The mayor’s championed raising Denver sales tax by .12% to net about $12 million annually for the Denver Preschool program in ten years. Currently the city serves nearly 51,000 children annually (Rose Community Foundation, 2014).

Could the Denver model work for St. Louis? There are three variables that seem key to consider. Would St. Louis city and county voters favor an increased sales tax? A sales tax is a regressive tax which would have a disproportionate impact of low income consumers. Also important to consider is the disproportionate burden placed on the country as that is where the majority of the sales options are. The second factor to consider is that in contrast to Denver, the city and the county have multiple mayors, and there is no single political figure that can champion such a policy with unified power. Third, do St. Louis voters know enough about the important role early education plays and would they vote in its favor?

From the National Institute for Early Education, the work of the Clark Fox Policy Institute as well as the advocacy of the Children’s Defense Fund we have been given a few key recommendations as St. Louis continues to explore the option of increased accessibly to early education options. A list of five considerations compiled by the EdSource includes first, quality cannot be sacrificed for expansion (Stavely, 2018) (NIEER,2017, p. 23). This is an incredibly tight rope to walk, as reach is important but so is quality. Second, staff, salary and professional development must be considered in the development of any program (Stavely, 2018) (NIEER,2017, p. 23). Many states have worked with local colleges to improve teacher prep programs to incorporate workforce development.

The third recommendation by the Ed Trust is to fully integrate an existing programs into any new preschool initiative (Stavely, 2018). In Denver this means that they accept the same application for Head Start. Similarly, WV develops their own programs in collaboration with existing Head Start programs (Stavely, 2018). The fourth recommendation is to place an emphasis on research and data tracking from the outset. Finally, to remember that no one size fits all (Stavely, 2018).

We are presented with a unique opportunity, to learn from accessible preschool programs across the country and to adapt lessons learned from all to meet the needs of St. Louis city and county children. It’s likely that a sales tax will not be popular with St. Louis voters as it was with Denver voters, nor will the option to compete for the federal development grant be feasible. It is interesting to contemplate the other funding streams that St. Louis voters might be more amenable to.

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Importance Of Early Childhood Education. (2022, Jun 26). Retrieved from

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