Academic journal article Education Next

What Happened When Kindergarten Went Universal?

Academic journal article Education Next

What Happened When Kindergarten Went Universal?

Article excerpt

More than four decades after the first model preschool interventions, there is an emerging consensus that high-quality early-childhood education can improve a child's economic and social outcomes over the long term. Publicly funded kindergarten is available to virtually all children in the U.S. at age five, but access to preschool opportunities for children four years old and younger remains uneven across regions and socioeconomic groups. Parents with financial means have the option of enrolling their child in a private program at their own expense. State and federal subsidies are available to some low-ineome parents; the federal Head Start program also serves children from low-income families. And states such as Oklahoma and Florida have recently enacted universal preschool programs. Yet gaps in access to high-quality programs remain.

It is unclear whether and how public funds should be mobilized to close those gaps. Some advocate expanding existing programs that target disadvantaged children on the grounds that limited public resources should be directed toward the families and children most in need. Others consider the perennial underfunding of targeted programs like Head Start as evidence of a lack of political support for this approach, and argue that providing universal access is needed to ensure adequate public funding over the long run. In other words, any new funding for preschool education must benefit middle-class children if it is to gain their parents' political backing. Or so it is argued.

Existing research provides little insight into the relative merits of universal programs and those targeted to specific groups. While there have been several recent studies of the short-term effects of universal preschool programs in the U.S., there is no evidence to date on long-term consequences. Some studies suggest that Head Start has lasting effects in reducing criminal behavior and increasing educational attainment, but this program is much more intensive than any universal program is likely to be and serves a very disadvantaged population.

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In the absence of direct evidence on the types of preschool programs now under consideration, this study attempts to shed light on the likely consequences of a new universal program by estimating the impact of earlier state interventions to introduce kindergarten into public schools. In the 1960s and 1970s, many states, particularly in the southern and western parts of the country, for the first time began offering grants to school districts operating kindergarten programs. Districts were quick to respond. The average state experienced a 30 percentage point increase in its kindergarten enrollment rate within two years after an initiative, contributing to dramatic increases in kindergarten enrollment (see Figure 1). These interventions present an unusual opportunity to study the long-term effects of large state investments in universal preschool education.

My results indicate that state funding of universal kindergarten had no discernible impact on many of the long-term outcomes desired by policymakers, including grade retention, public assistance receipt, employment, and earnings. White children were 2.5 percent less likely to be high school dropouts and 22 percent less likely to be incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized as adults following state funding initiatives, but no other effects could be discerned. Also, I find no positive effects for African Americans, despite comparable increases in their enrollment in public kindergartens after implementation of the initiatives. These findings suggest that even large investments in universal early-childhood education programs do not necessarily yield clear benefits, especially for more disadvantaged students.

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Kindergarten in the U.S.

Many state governments have only recently introduced state grants for school districts that operate kindergarten programs. …

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