More cities implement universal pre-K when state, national efforts fall short
- Chicago Mayor Rahn Emanuel has proposed an early education overhaul that would phase in full-day pre-K education for all 4-year-olds over the next four years at an initial cost of $20 million this year and an expected annual cost of $175 million by 2021, The 74 reports.
- If approved, the phase-in would start this fall with roughly 3,700 students whose families earn $46,000 or less annually and ultimately reach an estimated 24,000 4-year-olds in the city by 2021.
- Cities and districts like New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston are already pursuing large-scale pre-K initiatives as the idea is gaining support on both sides of the political aisle. According to a 2017 poll by the First Five Years Fund, 82% of Republicans and 97% of Democrats support making early education more affordable.
While some polls indicate a growing level of support for universal pre-K programs — those that serve children regardless of family income level — the implementation of the idea has not gained national traction and only exists in a new states. Pre-K still exists largely outside of states' K-12 finance systems, making it more susceptible to fluctuations in the economy and turnover in state leadership. While many states have increased funding levels for preschool programs over the past few years, as they've recovered from the recession, some large cities are not waiting for state action and are implementing their own universal pre-K programs. New York City and Washington, D.C. are clear examples, but others are also taking steps in this area.
Some experts aren't convinced that universal models are a better approach than targeting services to children with the highest needs. Others say universal programs have had mixed success. Oklahoma has offered universal pre-K for roughly two decades, and researchers are finding lasting positive results through middle school, but the state still remains well behind most other states in math and reading scores. And some critics also point out that statistics used to justify the return on investment for such programs are flawed.
Universal preschool help families with child-care expenses and offers educational benefits in preparing children for a school setting. But the long term benefits are less clear, especially for black students, who do not appear to benefit as much from universal pre-K programs. The reason for this may be the overwhelming impact of other factors. As economist and researcher Emma Garcia noted in the Hechinger Report, “There is only so much that even comprehensive, well-designed programs can do to mitigate the pressures and effects of disadvantage and low social class.”