Another 11 percent of 4-year-olds and 8 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in federally funded Head Start programs for low-income children and around 30 percent of children were in private programs, which vary vastly in quality.
A quarter of 4-year-olds and half of all 3-year-olds attend no preschool at all. Some may be in the care of attentive caregivers, but plenty of others are sitting in front of TV sets, which do nothing for brain development, the University of Washington team has found.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. ranks 28th out of 38 major countries in the percentage of children enrolled in quality pre-K programs.
Just as preschool education has been promoted on a bipartisan basis in the states, it has also been advanced by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
Bush began pushing to overhaul Head Start and Congress’ 2007 reauthorization of the program called for half of its lead teachers to have bachelor’s degrees by this year and established a “recompetition” procedure for agencies to win Head Start contracts.
Obama established a “race to the top” competition for state preschool programs as well as for K-12 and, as part of the Obamacare law, created a home-visit program to teach new mothers how to teach their children as well as look after their health.
Unfortunately, Obama has not said how much his program would cost or how he would pay for it — and the “high quality” preschools he correctly cited as paying dividends are expensive, at least $8,000 annually per child, according to Lisa Guernsey of the New America Foundation.
That would mean, to cover all 4-year-olds, spending $10 billion to $15 billion more than the $9 billion currently being spent.
Then again, the average annual cost to house a prison inmate is more than $20,000 and two-thirds of U.S. prisoners haven’t finished high school.
And quality of preschool programs — meaning trained teachers, low pupil-teacher ratios and good curriculums — is important.
“We want to make sure that the rhetoric about pre-school does not lead to lazy policy,” Guernsey wrote in 2009. “To generate returns on investment, we must not simply increase the number of children enrolled in existing programs.
“We need to raise the quality of these programs [and] failure to do so could undermine support for early education.”
So Congress should scrutinize the Obama proposals for effectiveness, but those who doubt that they could make a difference should show up Wednesday. They’ll be amazed.