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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Equalizing the Opportunity to Succeed

It will be interesting to see what difference this public preschool program makes. I hope the effect is long-term:

Bridging Gaps Early On in Oklahoma, by David Leonhardt, NY Times: ...Almost a decade ago, ... Oklahoma agreed to pay for one year of pre-kindergarten. The program is voluntary, but 70 percent of 4-year-olds here now attend public preschool, more than in any other state. In every classroom, the head teacher must have a bachelor’s degree — nationwide, most preschool teachers don’t — and there must be a teacher for every 10 students.

This combination of quality and scale makes the Oklahoma program one of the most serious attempts to deal with economic inequality anywhere in the country. Long before children turn 5, there are already enormous gaps in their abilities. One study found that 3-year-olds with professional parents know about 1,100 words on average, while 3-year-olds whose parents are on welfare know only 525. Much of the gap is caused by environment rather than genes, according to a wide body of research. ...

Dexie Organ, a former drug user whose son David attends a Tulsa preschool she loves, put it better than I can: “I don’t care if they’re drug addicts’ children or doctors’ children — there is no child that should not have this opportunity.”

James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, even argues that spending on preschool ultimately pays for itself. Early childhood education is so important that it makes workers more productive and reduces crime. No other form of education spending ... brings nearly the same bang for the buck. ...

The state pays about $4,000 per 4-year-old, which isn’t enough for a full-day program. So some school districts offer only a half-day, leaving working parents to cobble together day care for the other half; other districts use federal or private funds to make up the difference. ...

But the early results in Oklahoma have still been very encouraging. In every socioeconomic group, 4-year-olds have benefited from attending public preschool... All else being equal, for example, a child who went through a year of prekindergarten did 52 percent better on a letter-recognition test than one who didn’t.

Not surprisingly, the gains were largest for low-income children and for Latinos, many of whom don’t hear English at home. ... The big remaining question is whether the gains will last for more than a few years... That won’t be clear for a while. But Oklahoma’s program has already been promising enough to inspire Illinois, Iowa, New Mexico, Virginia and other states...

As this list of states suggests, preschool cuts across some of the usual ideological lines. Liberals like its antipoverty bent; conservatives prefer education to straight income redistribution; and business executives see preschool as a way to build a better work force. ...

The biggest preschool opponents tend to be religious conservatives worried about the creation of a nanny state. ... It’s worth remembering that some of this opposition stems from simple self-interest. Universal preschool is a threat to the many churches that help support themselves with the revenue from their day care programs. ...

The opponents do have one important point to make: governments can put too much emphasis on preschool and day care. ... The ideal early-childhood policy wouldn’t just pay for preschool. It would also make it easier for parents to take time off from work.

But this country isn’t yet in any danger of having too much preschool. Just consider what has happened in the last generation: millions of women have entered the work force, making child care a real challenge for many families, and a deluge of scientific studies has pointed to the importance of early learning. Yet most states have done almost nothing to respond to the changes. ...

We could do a lot more to support working parents. As noted, our education system design and schedule needs to catch up to the fact that in many cases both parents work or there is a single parent who works. As it stands, working and parenting are too often in conflict. If, in the process we can reduce inequality of opportunity through preschool programs and other means, so much the better.

    Posted by on Wednesday, February 7, 2007 at 01:06 AM in Economics, Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (26)

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