Democrats support universal pre-K because we recognize the value of early childhood education and want every child to have the benefit of it — not just the wealthy ones whose parents can afford to send them to private preschools. But a new report released earlier this month shows that “universal” policies aren’t actually doing a good job of helping the low-income children who need pre-K the most and get the greatest benefits from it. Instead, New York City’s recently-enacted universal policy is disproportionately benefiting middle- and upper-income children. University of California researchers found that the rate of expansion of universal pre-K slots is more than twice as large in zip codes where families earn more than the city’s average income than in zip codes home to families in the lowest income quartile. So while universal pre-K is a laudable goal, it may not be the best policy for the kids who really need it.
Instead of universal pre-K for all, we should consider pre-K plus for some. This program has proven comprehensive services that help provide low-income children with the skills, and parents with the tools they’ll need to increase the likelihood of future social and economic mobility.
Right now, low-income children start kindergarten four to six months behind their middle class peers. Most never catch up. By age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words and score an entire standard deviation lower on IQ tests than wealthier kids. The gap between test scores of low- and high-income children is twice as large as the gap between African-American and white students, an almost complete reversal from 50 years ago.
These facts are the impetus behind the movement for universal pre-K, a worthy aspiration for the nation. But let’s be realistic. Congress is unlikely to scare up the resources or will to deliver federally-funded, high-quality early education to the more than 4 million four-year-olds in our country every year. And as Bruce Fuller, a professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley demonstrated in his newly-released New York City study, even if it did, it’s the wealthy kids who disproportionately benefit from the implementation of those policies. Yet research shows that while all kids get some benefit from pre-K education, low-income kids receive greater benefits that have longer lasting effects.
As we envision it, pre-K plus doesn’t just mean focusing on enrolling low-income students — it also means ensuring they are being taught the skills they need to be successful in school and in life (not just their ABCs). Learning the alphabet is important, but at least as important to future success are things like executive functions and non-cognitive skills like grit, delaying gratification, controlling impulses, self-regulation, and focusing attention that help both children and adults deal with confusing or unpredictable situations and thrive.
The high stress of growing up in poverty makes it more difficult for low-income children to develop and practice these skills, research has found. Because they are developed in large part before the age of five, pre-K plus curriculum should follow the example of Illinois’ Early Learning Guidelines and providers like KinderCare to incorporate activities that build these skills — because kids who demonstrate them score higher on math and reading throughout school and are more likely to have successful careers, marriages, and health outcomes for the rest of their lives.
Pre-K plus must also have a parent-focused, wrap-around component that helps address the full spectrum of low-income families’ needs — after-school childcare, medical care and screening, support services, and programs that guide and involve parents in their children’s education so they can make the home a good place to learn. This isn’t inexpensive, but neither is economic immobility.
As a nation, we shouldn’t be spending precious federal pre-K dollars on the upper-income kids in Staten Island when the low-income kids in the Bronx need it so much more. Instead, we should be allocating those dollars where they will do the most good in the long term—on pre-K plus that targets the low-income children who have the most pressing needs and would receive the greatest benefit. It should also help instill the full range of skills research shows help kids succeed, and offer comprehensive wrap-around services so that the grown-ups in children’s lives are equipped to help them shape their future.
A child born in the bottom economic quintile today has a 70 percent chance of being poor or near-poor as an adult. That is an unconscionable scandal for a nation of our size and wealth. Let’s tackle this problem aggressively at the earliest of ages, not by spreading our resources thinly to all but by focusing them on those who deserve it most.
Sarah Trumble is the policy counsel for Social Policy & Politics at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C.