In May of 2018, the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, made what many deemed the lofty promise of free, universal, all day pre-K for every four-year-old in the city. This announcement follows the lead of both the Mayor of New York’s Bill De Blasio’s Universal pre-K initiative and several states that have increased their funding in public pre-K programs. The concept of universal pre-K is not new to many in the field of education policy and even for many politicians. In 2014, then-president Obama called for universal pre-K in his State of the Union address and in 2016 awarded $250 million to 18 states to develop preschool programs for children. Universal pre-K could be branded as another example of “big government” policy initiatives, but even some crimson red states such as South Carolina and Mississippi have made strides in increasing funding for early education programs. The widespread appeal of increasing access to early childcare programs exemplifies the growing support for truly investing in a child’s future during a key developmental period and making strides to ending the imbalance in access to education among American students today.
The common definition of universal pre-K is that every child can enroll in a publicly funded pre-K program just as children do in first grade. Programs vary state-by-state in both their definition and intent to implement. Some states only target children from low income families. Critics argue states that do not adequately fund their pre-K programs do not meet the standards necessary for an effective learning environment. According the National Institute for Early Education Research,as of 2016, only the pre-k programs in Vermont, Florida, and Washington DC can be considered fully universal in that every child can enroll and nearly all do.
Despite the fact that more children have access to pre-K than ever before, one third of children in the United States are still underserved and 3.7 million three- and four-year-olds do not attend either private or public preschool programs. In light of the current administration’s complete change in priorities for education reform and funding, the continual effort and energy behind expanding access to early childcare is now the responsibility of state and local governments more than ever before. States and local governments should continue to expand funding for universal access to early childcare programs because it creates a substantial positive effect on student achievement and continuing to rob american students of a quality education is both a disgrace and injustice to future generations.
Although critics can reasonably claim that universal access to pre-K programs is not the silver bullet to decreasing the achievement gap among schools, pre-K programs are pivotal in a child’s development. Due to the fact that a child’s brain develops at a much faster rate during pre-K years, better schooling can correlate to increased achievement in reading, math, and self control. According to a study done by multiple researchers including big names from the child development world such as Deborah Phillips of Georgetown University and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, children who attend public preschool programs are both better equipped in both short term and long term periods. Students who attend public preschool are better prepared for kindergarten than children who don’t and this participation in high-quality pre-K programs can increase their performance in school, chance of earning a higher salary once they enter the workforce, and decrease their chances of engaging in criminal activity.
Access to pre-K programs should be even more of a priority for policy makers and elected officials also in part due to the positive effect it can have on low income students and dual-language learners. All children benefit from preschool, but poor and disadvantaged students often make the most gains. Universal pre-K could be one of, hopefully many, reforms that can help families struggling with economic scarcity and insecurity support their children’s future success and achievement. In addition, dual-language learners have shown to have benefitted in their English-proficiency and academic skills. Spanish speaking children often have underdeveloped pre-math and pre-literacy skills and this combination of learning two languages at the same time can create stronger brain circuits and support self regulation. However, despite misconceptions around early childcare policy, this doesn’t mean that effective programs must only target disadvantaged kids. According to researchers, pre-K classrooms can be even more of an advantage for poor students or those learning English due to “the value of being immersed among a diverse array of classmates.”
For the sake of students nationwide, it is imperative that our country’s education policy both focus on improving student achievement and lessening the gap among socio-economic groups by providing quality universal pre-K programs. Education policy is complicated and cannot be fixed by simply increasing access to early childcare programs. However, it would be disadvantageous and unjust for creators of education policy and elected officials to not prioritize reforms that both correlates with pivotal years of child development and can support low income students and the increasing number of dual-language learners. Every child has the right to at least start on the same foot academically as the rest of their peers, and until education policy truly reflects that, students have been failed by a system that promotes equal access and social mobility but underserves and undermines a child’s future.