A Moment with Dr. Moore: The Promise of Pre-K for All

December 15, 2022

Saving money was the main thing on Laura’s mind when she put her son in a public preschool on Capitol Hill. The Washington, DC, mom admitted to having “misgivings about uprooting him from his fancy federal day care program.” Still, funds were tight since she was expecting a second child. “So, I decided to give the DC public school a chance,” Laura explained. And she was thrilled with the results. Her son was learning more at the preschool than he had at the day care because the teachers were better educated and better paid.

Besides everything the school’s skilled staff taught their classes, the children learned the value of inclusion as they met peers from a diverse range of backgrounds and from every part of DC. “The classes were about half Black and half white, along with some Hispanics and Asians,” Laura recalled. “Parents were cancer researchers and government lawyers and aspiring fireworks-stand operators. Some classmates lived in million-dollar row houses; some lived in homeless shelters.” And these differences didn’t seem to bother the children, as Laura observed. “I liked how comfortably my 4-year-old could talk about race in a neighborhood that all but burned to the ground during the 1968 riots,” she said.

And free, quality preschool like they have in DC can help end the social injustice that led to racial strife in 1968. That’s because preschool for all reduces the achievement gap for low-income children, as shown by a recent study of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s public preschool program, one of the country’s oldest. The program had clearly made a positive long-term impact, according to a team of Georgetown University researchers who tracked a cohort of Tulsa pre-K students over a span of 16 years.

In a recently published study, the Georgetown team looked at links between the Tulsa preschool program and college enrollment, a predictor of higher earnings in adult life. They found that students who attended the program were 12 percent more likely to enroll in college than those who didn’t. And the impact was especially great for low-income Black children, whose families have tended to find it harder to access child care on their own.

But it’s not just about access. The programs have to be high-quality, said Carrie Gillispie, a senior P-12 research associate at the Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for equity in education. By high quality, Gillespie meant they are culturally responsive and committed to building strong bonds with parents. They also have to support children who are dual language learners, as well as those with disabilities or delays. And it means “doing this all through a lens of understanding the systemic, historical and current inequities that low-income Black families have faced when trying to obtain early education for their children.”

Reducing the achievement gap for low-income children is not the only benefit of preschool for all, as I saw while serving as an educational leader in Alabama, where the First Class Pre-K program is praised as one of the best in the country. Public preschool for all also makes the best use of limited education budgets and brings together children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition, it has the power to advance teacher qualifications and level the playing field for early childhood teachers by paying them on par with their K-12 peers.

All this points to the tremendous promise of preschool for all and makes it a wise investment in the future of early learning. After carefully reading the research, I’ve come to believe that for every $1 a state invests at the front end it gets back $7 in the form of healthier, more productive adults who cost the public less. Yet public preschools face roadblocks since cities and states don’t always spend enough on the programs and many parents prefer to keep their young children at home.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS), for example, is offering free pre-K for 4-year-old children in most of the city, but thousands of seats are unfilled, mostly in schools serving large numbers of low-income families and children of color. Some families fail to sign up because they don’t know how to navigate the system or think their children are too young. So, CPS is marketing the program by placing ads on billboards, TV and online. It also promotes enrollment by working with other city agencies, holding back-to-school events, and partnering with groups like Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) on door-to-door outreach to parents.

“It’s not just about the kids, it’s about their parents too,” said Samantha Melvin, assistant research professor at Erikson Institute, a graduate program focused on early childhood education. “When kids are in early childhood education programs that really meet their needs, parents are able to work, they’re able to go to school, they’re able to provide for their families.” And the results of the DC program bear out Melvin’s point. In the years since DC began offering child care for all, the city’s maternal labor force participation rate has risen about 12 percent, with 10 percent due to the preschool expansion. Equally important, 86 percent of the children were kindergarten ready by the time they finished the program.

Results like these have convinced most of the states and a growing number of cities to offer some form of pre-K for all. And just last month, New Mexico voters approved a ballot measure that made the state the country’s first to guarantee a constitutional right to early childhood education. “It means that our classrooms will be better resourced and early childhood educators now can also support their families while they’re helping raise the next generation in our state,” said Amber Wallin, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children. “The most important part is really what this means to our families, to our kids, to our workforce, and it’s impossible to overstate what a transformational policy this is for them.”

But the pluses of pre-K for all depend on what we do to ensure quality in the public programs. It’s important for programs to follow the right curricula, conduct formal assessments, collect data to track children’s progress—and make substantial investments, like they did in DC. The city spends $18,580 per child enrolled—triple the national per-pupil figure. And besides earning wages on par with primary school teachers, the pre-K educators receive coaching to improve their practice—steps that led DC pre-K classrooms to boost their ratings on multiple metrics, including how well the teachers nurture children’s social, emotional and academic skills.

These results happened because DC refused to cut corners as it opened its program to all children in the city. “Seeing this kind of blending of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, you really see the benefits for all children,” said DC Public Schools pre-K teacher Lisa Gross. “Kids get to benefit from all the different cultures. It really leads to a much richer learning experience.” And building bridges among children from all walks of life advances the priceless values of social justice, equity and inclusion, as Laura saw on Capitol Hill. That leads to a brighter future for our country and may be the best reason for us to invest in the promise of pre-K for all.


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