Don't Back Burner Pre-K

Whatever happened to President Obama's call, in his State of the Union address, for all children to have access to pre-kindergarten education? It seems to have vanished without a trace.

That fate would be a shame, because the effectiveness of pre-K programs has been proven by countless studies, including the national Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten Cohort, which showed that students who attended pre-K scored higher on reading and math tests than children who received parental care, but were not enrolled in pre-K. The results are even more important for low-income families.  

Georgia and Oklahoma's programs, which Obama identified in his speech, are two states that have experimented with offering universal pre-K for all income levels, with favorable results. In Tulsa, for example, kids who went through pre-K achieved a 52% gain in the Letter-Word idenfication score, a 27% gain in spelling, and a 21% gain in pre-math.

These results, however, are for just one state. How can we replicate such gains on a larger level? The Center for American Progress's February report "Investing in Our Children" offers insights into that question. The report is based on two main policy recommendations: a proposal that would guarantee that every child could attend two free years of pre-kindergarten education, and another to double access to affordable, quality child care for infants and toddlers. 

The CAP report suggests creating a matching funds program between federal and state governments -- whereby the federal government would match state preschool spending up to $10,000 per child per year. This funding would allow families with children ages 3 and 4 to voluntarily send their children to a full-day (nine-hour) public preschool program or to choose a shorter-day alternative. Preschool would be free for children from families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Families above that income bracket would be charged on a sliding scale from 30% to 95% of the cost for families above 400% of the poverty line. 

Of course, as The New Republic points out, this does not come cheap. CAP's proposed program would cost approximately $10.5 billion a year. And apparently this money is essential. Programs in states less rigorous (and less expensive) than Oklahoma and Georgia have not had the same results. As Suzy Khimm points out in the Washington Post, "In 2011, $2,400 was spent per child in Florida’s pre-K, and the state failed to meet the majority of quality benchmarks, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research."

This is all a long shot considering the fiscal crunch. Still, as Kris Perry, Director of the First Five Years Fund tells The New Republic "In the past month, a number of GOP governors. . .have spoken favorably about the need for greater investments in early childhood education, including Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal."

Pre-K, in other words, is one of the few things politicians and experts can agree on these days. 

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