At some point, the United States is likely to have universal publicly-funded early education for children aged one to four. But while we led the way in establishing universal elementary and secondary schooling and in expanding access to college, on early education we lag well behind some other rich nations. We should pick up the pace.
WHY EARLY EDUCATION?
Universal early education will have two significant benefits. First, many Americans with prekindergarten children want to combine family with paid work.1 But because good-quality out-of-home care can be prohibitively expensive, too many parents settle for care that is mediocre or poor.2 Others simply forgo employment.3
Denmark and Sweden offer a good model. Beginning in the 1960s, these countries introduced and then steadily expanded paid parental leave and publicly-funded childcare and preschool. Today, Danish and Swedish parents can take a paid year off work following the birth of a child. After that, parents can put the child in a public or licensed private early education center. The quality tends to be high, as early education teachers get training and pay comparable to elementary school teachers. Parents pay a fee, but the cost is capped at less than 10% of a household’s income.4
We can see the impact in employment patterns. Among mothers whose youngest child is six to sixteen years old, and thus eligible for free K-12 schooling, the employment rate in the U.S. is just a few percentage points lower than in Denmark and Sweden. Among mothers with a child younger than six, it’s 15 percentage points lower.5
Second, evidence increasingly suggests that good-quality universal early education helps to equalize opportunity by improving the capabilities of children from less advantaged homes.
Americans are strong believers in equality of opportunity. More than 90% of us think “our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”6 But family conditions are a huge impediment. Some children have parents who read to them, instill helpful traits such as self-control and persistence, shield them from stress and physical harm, expose them to new information and learning opportunities, assist them with homework, provide connections that help them get out of trouble or into a good job, remain in a stable relationship throughout the childhood years, and so on. Other children are less fortunate.7 As a result, whereas an American born into a family in the top fifth of incomes has roughly an 80% chance of ending up in the middle fifth or higher in adulthood, an American born into the bottom fifth has only a 30% chance of reaching the middle fifth or higher.8
Schools help to offset the massive differences in capabilities caused by families. Children from poor homes tend to have much lower measurable skills than children from affluent homes at kindergarten entry. Given the huge variation in home and neighborhood circumstances, we would expect that gap to widen throughout childhood. But it doesn’t; it’s about the same size at the end of high school.9 This tells us that schools have an equalizing effect. Also, during summer vacations, when children are out of school, those from lower-income families tend to fall farther behind.10
If school began earlier in life, we could reduce some of the disparity that exists when children arrive for kindergarten. Indeed, some analysts conclude that the impact of schooling is larger before kindergarten than after.11
The effects of three high-quality early education programs — the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan in the 1960s, the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina in the 1970s, and the Child-Parent Center Education Program in Chicago in the 1970s — have been tracked into early adulthood or beyond. Each program appears to have had positive effects for low-income children that persist throughout the life course. For the Perry and Chicago Programs, gains in test scores faded away but there were long-term gains in labor market success and other outcomes. The same appears to be true for Head Start. This suggests that the key improvement is in noncognitive skills more than in cognitive ability. On the other hand, the Abecedarian Project yielded better long-term behavioral outcomes along with sustained gains in test scores. A natural experiment in Denmark also found lasting test-score gains. So early education’s benefits for children from less advantaged homes may come via both cognitive and noncognitive skills.12
Skeptics point to findings of little apparent impact of existing universal preschool programs for four-year-olds in Oklahoma and Georgia. But these programs are too new to assess long-run effects.13
The Nordic countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden, have had universal early education systems in place for a generation. This may help account for why opportunity is more equal — children’s cognitive abilities, likelihood of completing high school and college, and labor market success depend less on their parents’ education, income, and parenting practices — in these countries than in others.14
In sum, good-quality universal early education will improve work-family balance and very likely will reduce inequality of opportunity.
A possible third benefit is faster economic growth. If universal early education increases employment by mothers and improves the capabilities of Americans who grow up in less advantaged homes, it may boost the economy’s growth rate. But I’m much less confident about this outcome than the other two. Though the Nordic countries have had universal early education for several decades, their economies don’t grow more rapidly now than they used to. Nor do they (apart from oil-rich Norway) grow faster than other affluent nations. If early education does increase economic growth, its impact probably is small enough that it’s overshadowed by the myriad other determinants of national growth rates.15