Does Early Childhood Education Impact Inequality?

New York City took an important step forward this week in supporting early childhood education. On Monday the city announced the first "Educare" school in the city. The Educare movement is aimed at increasing school readiness and educational opportunities for children under 5 living in high needs areas. Educare is a year-round program offering all day care and classes for children, a real help for working parents in under-served neighborhoods. New York City's first Educare school will open next year at P.S. 41 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It will also include a leadership institute to train early childhood school directors.

Educare's website says that it is "funded mostly by existing public dollars," a wise reallocation of funds. New York City also announced that it will add 4,000 new full-day pre-kindergarten seats in high needs areas for 2013-2014. Year after year, the city receives more applications for pre-K than it can honor, making the new seats a welcome addition.

As the new pre-K seats and Educare school roll out, there will undoubtedly be criticism and concern. Very little changes in education without some critical examination or outright complaining.

But the principle of offering development opportunities to children from high needs neighborhoods is an important one and one that hits directly at the source of inequality. In the most recent issue of the Boston Review, noted authors and experts debate the impact of early intervention on inequality

The lead essay, written by Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman, provides powerful evidence that, simply put, "[e]arly life matters" and "[t]he accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today." But it isn't destiny, Heckman argues. And while families have a paramount role to play in enhancing the social, emotional, and intellectual development of their children, well-informed, scientifically-based public policy can aid matters significantly.

Here's a quick rundown of the other participants and arguments with Heckman in the Boston Review:

Robin West criticizes the model espoused by Heckman, saying that Heckman’s model is "remarkably unjust" in tems of the family ideals it promotes. Charles Murray explains that "only a small number of studies report positive results for early intervention programs." Mike Rose says that "policy interventions in poor people’s lives should address the fact that they are poor." David Deming says the early chilhood program vary widely in quality, but that having something in place is better than nothing. Neal McCluskey says that private institutions, not government, should be the ones tackling early childhood issues. Annette Lareau makes the point that the movement should not cause us to overlook already failing social institutions. Lelac Almagor puts out a call for more specific evidence about the success of early intervention. Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse say that early childhood interventions may impose white, middle-class norms, "but that shouldn’t stop reformers." Geoffrey Canada reminds readers that having a large number of children at risk is a problem for the whole country.

Boston Review's coverage of this issue is worth your time. It serves as an important reminder that no good idea is without its critics. One of the best things about a well- and impartially edited debate is that it allows any interested reader to examine all the evidence and make up his or her own mind. The importance of early childhood intervention, and the best way to approach it, is a vital issue for anyone interested in policies that promote economic opportunity. That fact alone makes the Boston Review material a must-read.