In his call in the State of the Union address for all 50 states to offer high-quality preschool for every 4-year-old in the country, President Obama is asking to fill a large gap.
In the 2010-11 school year, the latest year for which data is available, 28 percent of 4-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in a state-financed preschool program, according to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research. In that year, according to the institute, state financing for prekindergarten programs decreased by $60 million.
Steven Barnett, the director of the institute, at Rutgers University, said only five states currently have a stated objective of reaching all 4-year-olds.
Although more preschoolers are involved in programs run under the auspices of Head Start, community groups or private programs, millions of children are not enrolled in any kind of preschool program at all. What's more, quality can be difficult to achieve. In its report, the institute noted that "data from the past decade indicate a longer-term trend of eroding quality and the gradual substitution of inexpensive child care for early education."
Supporters of the president's proposal on Tuesday say the benefits of preschool education are clear. According to Mr. Barnett – and as Mr. Obama stated in his address – every $1 spent on preschool education ultimately saves about $7 on spending on remedial education and crime while raising future tax revenues because those who attend high-quality preschool programs end up earning higher incomes.
Critics say the federal government has already tested a national preschool program with Head Start, which serves about 1.1 million low-income children across the country. While studies of individual programs have shown benefits, a national study sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services of 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds in 84 local Head Start programs found few lasting benefits by third grade.
"It's one thing to say that there are a handful of small pre-K programs that may have had lasting and significant benefits," said Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom, a unit of the right-leaning Cato Institute. "It's another to imagine that the federal government can scale them up nationally."
But advocates say Head Start, which receives about $7 billion in federal financing annually, is hampered by inconsistent standards and low pay for teachers.
"When I hear people say, 'We've tried to replicate high-quality preschool programs, and it hasn't worked,' I always stop and say, 'We haven't yet tried to replicate high-quality preschool programs, because we haven't yet tried to pay preschool teachers the same that we're paying our K-12 teachers," said Lisa Guernsey, director of early education at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit and nonpartisan policy institute. "It's pretty hard to imagine that we're going to be recruiting great teachers if we're paying them a poverty-level or just-above-poverty-level wage."education
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.