Little Learners

12.20.135:45 AM ET

The Bipartisan Pre-K Push

The House and Senate are quietly working to expand pre-K access for the nation's poorest children. Why we should applaud the effort.

Last month, something truly extraordinary happened—but hardly anyone in DC noticed amidst the breathless coverage of Obamacare’s troubled launch. On November 13, the House and Senate proposed bills to expand pre-K access for children from low- and moderate-income families.

While Congress proposes any number of bills each session (on a surprisingly wide variety of topics), this one stands out—it’s a bipartisan effort to enact one of President Obama’s priorities from his 2013 State of the Union address. Inside today’s Beltway, that qualifies as a near-historic moment.

What makes pre-K politically unique?

For some years now, a growing number of prominent economists—led by Nobel Laureate James Heckman—have argued that high-quality pre-K programs should be measured as financial instruments. They cite a considerable research consensus demonstrating that these programs produce personal and social benefits that can be measured in dollar terms. The best of these programs have been shown to return $5, $7, or even $16 of personal and social benefits for every $1 dollar spent on the program. Students in many quality pre-K programs are less likely to repeat a grade, be classified for special education, receive public welfare, or end up in jail. For many programs, they are more likely to graduate high school and usually earn more money in the long run. These additional earnings mean additional tax revenue for public institutions. To borrow a pithy phrase, we can invest in pre-K now or prisons later.

Compile these benefits for thousands of students and calculate them across the years, and great early childhood programs actually pay for themselves within a decade or two. Lower welfare rolls, less crime, and fiscal responsibility? What’s not to like?

But that’s not all. In addition to their long-term benefits for students and society, pre-K programs also support working parents here in the present. In the face of decreasing social mobility, limited purchasing power, and rising child-related costs, working parents are having an immensely difficult time balancing their financial and familial obligations. Could the bill’s full-day pre-K erase one year of families’ child care costs or shorten the time that parents take away from the office? Or both?

The American Dream means many things to many people, but it is fundamentally a wager that the future holds more and better opportunities than the present. Even in the recession’s wake, over half of Americans still believe that today’s children will grow up to live as well or better than today’s adults—though there’s no question that today’s parents have reason to be particularly disillusioned.

But even national conceits need some empirical sustenance—and our present situation is dire. The post-recession recovery hasn’t significantly eased the tight economic strain many middle-class families face. The unemployment problem is proving so stubborn that we’ve given up talking about it. Workers are more productive than ever, but their average wages haven’t substantially increased in years. If Americans pull any harder on their bootstraps, they’ll break.

Today’s parents face all of these economic challenges while trying to cover child care responsibilities and maintain a career arc that gives them a fighting chance of a stable financial future. The data are bleak, and the anecdotes are brutal. In my community (Washington, DC), people speak of the traditional trappings of the middle class as interchangeable parts in a zero-sum game. They’ve worked out that they can afford to save for two out of three long-term goals: home ownership in a zip code with decent schools, their children’s college tuition, or their own retirement. Middle-class wages may be stagnant, but these costs aren’t.

This fuels tortured decision-making. Parents who stay home with young kids surrender scarce resources (and their foothold in the job market). Families who “lean in” to cover the long-term bills pay dearly to outsource their parenting to child care providers during their (increasingly long) workweeks. Child care costs in my community run well over $20,000 each year—and that’s the sticker price for just one child.

The stakes are exorbitantly high; believe it or not, those choosing between spending weekday time home with their children and professional progress are the “lucky” ones. Consider Matt Bruenig’s recent take in the American Prospect:

[O]f the 36 million husband-wife families in which the wife does market work, 54 percent...would be below 2x the poverty line if the wife didn't do so. It's not uncommon to describe those below 2x the poverty line as being in or near poverty. So under that convention, 54 percent of husband-wife families in which the wife works would be in or near poverty with just the husband's earnings.

These data aren’t fundamentally about gender. They’re not even about work-life “balance.” They’re about choosing between work or immiseration, which makes the choice between family and upper-middle-class career seem relatively benign.

Our governing institutions’ inactivity stands in stark contrast. Americans are working harder than ever, while Congress has spent the last three years lurching about in search of new ways to gridlock over whether governing (in any form!) is worth the hassle. In light of these pathetic flailings, it may seem exceedingly naïve to ask: what if public investments designed to brighten our children’s futures could also help ease pressures for adults in the present?

The logic of expanding pre-K access is relatively straightforward: by extending public education to four-year-olds, the pre-K bill would cut back on families’ child care costs and make it easier for caretaker parents to return to the workforce. As Laura Moser wrote this year in The New York Times:

When you have young children, it’s hard to imagine a time when you won’t spend much of your income on rearing them. There are the diapers and the gear and the batteries for all those educational toys, but mostly there’s the child care. The income-halving, savings-draining, vacation-precluding child care. But what if the years of shelling out those outrageous sums were three instead of five?

So the story goes, the time and money savings she mentions could make it possible for at-home parents to return more quickly to the workforce and generate more economic activity to help pay for public pre-K’s costs. These present benefits may even have long-term consequences of their own, since research shows that increases in family income propagate increases in children’s future earnings. In sum, early childhood programs save mom and dad money, get them back to work faster, and help them make more money—all of which cuts down on child poverty and further improves outcomes for children who are also getting quality instruction in the early childhood program.

It’s an intuitive story—but is it true? Consider Quebec's experience. Since 1997, the province has designed and built a heavily subsidized child care system covering zero- to four-year-olds. Parents pay just $7.00 each day for their child’s participation.

Quebec’s labor force has seen considerable effects: within 10 years, the percentage of working mothers increased by 22 percent and the number of single mothers on welfare dropped 50 percent. Economists estimate that the resulting increase in economic activity (and thus, tax revenue) and decreased dependence on public assistance cover between 40 and 50 percent of the system’s costs.

It’s difficult to know what this says about the new pre-K bill’s potential as a support for working families, however. To begin with, Quebec's gaudy numbers come from an era of robust economic growth for the region. What's more, the structure of the public institutions that are saving costs and reaping revenue benefits in Quebec differ considerably from corresponding ones in the United States.

More importantly, Congress’ new bill would primarily fund partnerships with states to provide pre-K to four-year-olds from families living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. If that system becomes adequate to demand, states can use the funding to expand access for three-year-olds. Even in the best-case scenario, were it to become law, the bill would still fall well short of the comprehensive, birth-to-kindergarten system in Quebec.

That said, there is evidence that the pre-K plan could have some effect on parents’ professional decisions. In a forthcoming paper for the Brookings Institute, Economists Elizabeth Cascio and Diane Schanzenbach found that state pre-K programs (like the ones that the bill would expand) may have a narrow impact on maternal employment. In Oklahoma and Georgia, universal pre-K increased the employment rate for less-educated mothers of four-year-olds for several years. It also saved families who would have otherwise paid for private child care between $3,333 and $5,625 over the year.

In sum, as far as labor supply and child care costs are concerned, the bills currently under consideration would benefit working American families in important—but limited—ways.

That’s because not all investments in early childhood are equally helpful for supporting these families. A system that provides affordable educational opportunities and care for children from birth will support a more dynamic, flexible workforce than a system that only provides targeted, means tested pre-K slots for four-year-olds. In Quebec, parents who stay home with their newborns for a time can choose to return to work whenever it fits their personal and professional needs without worrying about expensive child care (in theory, at least—in practice, there are not always enough seats to meet demand). In the United States, the pre-K bill would leave even most eligible low- and moderate-income families to balance precarious jobs against high child care costs for at least three years.

This is intuitive as well: public programs that offer only a few hours of education for children of a particular age won’t free parents to work full-time jobs in an office for eight (or more) hours each day. At best, part-time early childhood programs free parents to pursue part-time jobs with limited security, benefits, and pay. Programs like Washington, D.C.’s near-universal pre-K system, which offer children nearly 40 weekly hours of education, should be more effective at supporting parents who want to return to the labor force. Indeed, when Cascio and Schanzenbach included D.C.’s program in their analysis, they found data suggesting that it has a greater effect on maternal employment than Oklahoma or Georgia.

What does this mean for the pre-K bill? As currently drafted, the bill requires participating states to provide full-time pre-K, defined as no less than 25 hours per week. I asked Upjohn Institute economist Tim Bartik if he thought this would be enough to let many parents get back to work.

“It’s just not enough time. And it’s just for the nine-month school year,” Bartik said. “To get significant parental employment effects, we’d need a more comprehensive program that provided child care services year-round.”

Ellen Galinsky, President of the Families and Work Institute, concurred. “Expanding public pre-K options could relieve work-family conflict. On the positive side, these are typically accessible and free, and can be offered at a known and trusted community institution. [But if] the hours don’t fit the hours that families need to work, then they will need back-up provisions.”

One other challenge: the effects of different programs will vary with the resources, size, and structure of families. For instance, single mothers with five-year-olds (and no other children) face different employment obstacles and have different child care needs than mothers with multiple younger children, and so on.

Last July, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held an event touting “the benefits of investing in early childhood education.” The content of the morning’s discussion was interesting, but it paled in comparison with the strangeness of the bedfellows who took part. The Chamber co-hosted the event with the unflinchingly liberal Center for American Progress. George W. Bush’s Education Secretary Margaret Spellings joined Delaware Governor Jack Markell (D) and a bevy of CEOs and state education officials to make the case for expanding access to and improving the quality of pre-K in the United States. Jokes about the unconventional nature of the room’s common ground abounded.

The issue has a longer history than many realize. Democrats drove a bipartisan bill to provide universal pre-K in 1972, but President Nixon vetoed it in the name of avoiding “communal approaches to child rearing.”

Today’s GOP is leaving Nixon behind—especially at the state level. Fifteen years ago in Oklahoma, conservatives joined liberals to establish one of the country’s most accessible pre-K programs. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) is halfway through a push for $130 million in new early childhood funding.

In Washington, D.C., GOP pre-K advocates are in shorter supply. For the time being, Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) are the only Congressional Republicans publicly supporting the pre-K bill. But Hanna’s justification for supporting the bill illustrates why early childhood investments can appeal to conservatives.

“High-quality early learning guarantees a reduction in spending on entitlements, welfare and incarceration,” he noted. “It also lowers obesity rates, helping to reduce healthcare costs. By focusing on early education we can begin to break the back of intergenerational poverty, producing more taxpayers and a more competitive America through a better-educated, growing middle class.”

President Obama has often identified economic pressures on working families as a primary concern. Republicans concerned about the GOP's reputation for recalcitrance have started to craft competing rhetoric taking the sort of tack Hanna did with the bill. The long-term benefits of investing in early childhood education are considerable, and would eventually help shrink welfare programs Republicans have spent decades trying to cut. What’s more, with additional resources and more comprehensive services, it could be a powerful support for working parents struggling to make ends meet, raise their children, and develop their careers. It’s possible, in other words, to view the program as a means of allowing more Americans to work and provide for their families—solid conservative values.

So: will it pass? It’s hard to go wrong betting on congressional gridlock. But proposals to invest more in early childhood won’t stand or fall with this crop of professional obstructionists. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who—in addition to keeping pundits obsessing over her presidential ambitions—is spending the next few years advocating for such investments. The debate over public early childhood programs isn't going away anytime soon, so we owe it to ourselves to make sure that expansions of these programs are designed with both kids and their parents in mind.


Dr. Conor P. Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. He can be reached at [email protected]