Universal preschool is the next big thing in public education—or at least, in the politics of education. Hailed as a great equalizer by children’s advocates and championed as a bipartisan line item for conservatives and liberals. The only problem is that universal pre-K isn’t very universal in the communities that need it most.
The latest data crunch of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) suggests that while universal pre-Kindergarten holds enormous promise, programs in many cities and states suffer from inconsistent funding, uneven standards and failure to develop workforces to meet widening social needs.
NIEER’s report shows that in 2015 there was “continue[d] improvement in state funded pre-K with larger increases in enrollment, spending, spending per child, and quality standards than the previous year. State funded pre-K served almost 1.4 million children in 2014-2015, an increase of 37,167 children from the previous year” (about 29 percent of 4 year olds and 5 percent of three year olds nationwide). Pre-K spending has risen to nearly $4,500 per student, though this is still down from 2008 levels. Still, as with many nominally universal social programs, the rapid spread across states have also brought greater polarization—often along the same socioeconomic lines that universal pre-K was designed to help erase. The researchers noted that while some states are hitting new achievement benchmarks, “progress has been unequal and uneven with some states taking large steps forward and other states moving backward.”
Some substandard pre-K programs, according to the report, were concentrated in some of the largest, poorest communities: “California, Texas, and Florida have the highest numbers of children in poverty, serve the largest numbers of children, and have some of the lowest quality standards in the nation.” Meanwhile, volatile education budgets have hampered overall expansion: Pre-K programs in “13 states…reduced enrollment with Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin cutting enrollment by more than 2,000 children each.”
States are nonetheless getting more universal in terms of promoting uniform early-education standards: Nationwide, benchmarks for preschool programs have intensified, with more programs requiring, for example, that pre-K teachers have at least 15 hours of in-service training and a bachelor’s degree. But in some states like Texas and Pennsylvania, programs have failed to set parameters for decent class size and staff-student ratio standards. Reflecting the tension between access and quality, the pattern suggests that classes may grow at a rate that outpaces the growth and improvement of the teaching workforce.
The federal government can play a major part in shifting the country toward a universal preschool infrastructure. Many programs have been boosted by the White House’s Preschool Development Grant program. But again, year-to-year grants come on a piecemeal basis, which won’t resolve generational challenges to systemically overhauling early education programs.
The research on early childhood development shows that, as a social investment, preschool is associated with long-term cognitive gains and saves states money down the line by reducing academic problems like grade repetition and special-education placement. But the early-childhood premium attached to precious young ones is hardly reflected in the treatment of early-childhood educators, which in turn undermines preschool’s potential as a social equalizer.
According to a 2014 report by University of California–Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Childcare Employment, childcare workers and preschool teachers are some of the lowest-paid sectors of the educational workforce. Today, the median hourly wage for regular preschool teachers is less than $14, and many struggle to cover basic needs. In one survey of early-childhood teaching staff, nearly half of respondents “expressed worry about having enough food for their families,” and nearly two-thirds reported relying on public benefits like food stamps in the last three years. Those earning less than $12.50 an hour and those working outside of public-school settings, in private facilities, experienced especially high rates of hardship. This suggests that it’s not just higher pay but the kind of stable working environment that a standard public-school system offers that leads to better job quality. That could include a union contract with long-term job security. (Collective-bargaining policies cover preschool teachers in just 13 states.)
Pre-K educators generally earn less than teachers of grades K-3. The gap is even greater for teachers in privately managed programs that have been contracted to provide new slots for rapidly expanding preschool initiatives. (A pre-K teacher at a community center, for example, typically earns nearly $27,000 less than a K-3 public school teacher.) Though some states have narrowed the wage gap between in-school and out-of-school preschool staff, NIEER Director Steve Barnett says via e-mail, “Overall public programs offer better pay, better benefits, and better working conditions.”
Overall, preschool teachers lack the stable career path provided to their K-12 counterparts. NIEER’s survey shows that most state education agencies lack on-the-job professional development opportunities, and most fail to offer scholarships or loan forgiveness to encourage specialized higher education for staff—the kind of continuing education that’s crucial for strengthening much-needed racial and ethnic diversity and economic inclusion in the early-childhood educational workforce.
The direction of public investment is increasingly at odds with what the research on childhood development is telling us. Many experts are now advocating for a more comprehensive early-childhood system that integrates pre-K, K-3 curricula, and early childcare, forming a comprehensive education system through age 8. In the presidential race, universal pre-K has been promised alongside subsidized childcare on the Democratic candidates’ agendas for restructuring family-centered social-welfare programs. But before we even start thinking about building new systems, Barnett warns, school districts must ensure that preschool reaches the children for whom it holds the most potential:
The risk is that a tremendous amount of time and energy goes into planning, coordinating, aligning, etc. while there is little access and quality is very low. Sometimes I think the field wants to put all of [its] time and energy into systems building when the fundamental problem is inadequate programs.
There’s broad consensus that universal pre-K is a universally good thing, but that attractive policy proposal rings hollow if not met with wise educational-budget priorities. To the extent that the policy helps narrow inequality in early childhood, it should also promote a similar social rebalancing in the educational profession, lest both teachers and children get left behind.