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Beyond the sequester: The merits – and flaws – of Obama's preschool plan

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Of course, Mr. Obama’s initiative has come face to face with the reality of federal budget constraints, as the sequester – or across-the-board spending cuts – begins to take effect. Those cuts will stymie Obama’s early childhood education agenda for the foreseeable future, but expanding preschool for low-income families is still an idea whose time has come. Based on what the White House has released so far and some judicious reading between the lines, there are several aspects of the president's preschool plan to applaud.

Targeting. Research suggests a much greater return on public investment for pre-K programs targeted toward the disadvantaged as compared to universal programs. The administration proposes to provide funding to support program costs for children from families that are no more than 200 percent above the poverty line.

Data and assessment systems. Requiring states to collect information on quality, as the administration proposes, is the necessary first step in improving services. We have learned from rigorous research on K-12 public education that quality varies widely by classroom and school. For instance, variations in classroom quality in kindergarten are significantly related to college attendance rates and labor market earnings. We also have evidence of substantial variation in the quality of adult-child interactions in child-care settings.

Curriculum. Children’s pre-academic skills – including vocabulary, knowledge of the world, letter recognition, and phonemic awareness – are strongly associated with academic outcomes during elementary school. The administration’s commitment to linking federal funding to the requirement that preschool programs have a “rigorous curriculum” is important and evidence-based.

Curtains for Head Start (as we know it). A recently released high-quality federal study found that traditional Head Start programs serving 4-year-olds do not enhance the academic, social, or health outcomes of Head Start children as they progress through elementary school. This is a serious blow to an expensive federal program that has school readiness as its primary goal.

The sequester is expected to cut $400 million from the program this year. But my surmise is that, wherever possible, the administration intends to support the expansion of state pre-K programs for 4-year-olds at the expense of traditional Head Start. Good. States are better positioned than the federal government to provide a coherent preschool system.

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