Beyond the Sequester: The Merits and Flaws of Obama's Preschool Plan

By Whitehurst, Grover J. | The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 2013 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Sequester: The Merits and Flaws of Obama's Preschool Plan


Whitehurst, Grover J., The Christian Science Monitor


Theres been much hype about President Obamas new plan to expand preschool in the US. But while the presidents selling of his preschool plan makes it sound like a new entitlement taxpayer- funded preschool for all the White House fact sheet on the policy makes it clear that the plan isnt universal at all. Rather, the administration is proposing to work with states to fund expansion of taxpayer-funded pre-K for lower income families.

In fact, the Obama administrations preschool plan is consistent with the federal role in education and human services since the Lyndon Johnson administration: targeted assistance for services to the economically disadvantaged. And this is a good thing.

Research shows that children from poor families start school substantially behind children from more advantaged backgrounds in vocabulary, knowledge of the world, social skills, and pre-academic content such as letter recognition, all of which are strongly predictive of later school success. These differences arise because well-educated parents typically spend many thousands more hours than their poorly educated, low-income counterparts in interactions with their young children that teach things that are important for school readiness.

Good preschool programs can make up some of these gaps in experience and learning and thereby give children who would otherwise start and stay behind a fighting chance. In a 21st century global economy in which knowledge and skills are the passports to prosperity, it is important to our nation as a whole that all our children have a fair shot at a good education.

Of course, Mr. Obamas initiative has come face to face with the reality of federal budget constraints, as the sequester or across- the-board spending cuts begins to take effect. Those cuts will stymie Obamas early childhood education agenda for the foreseeable future, but expanding preschool for low-income families is still an idea whose time has come. Based on what the White House has released so far and some judicious reading between the lines, there are several aspects of the president's preschool plan to applaud.

Targeting. Research suggests a much greater return on public investment for pre-K programs targeted toward the disadvantaged as compared to universal programs. The administration proposes to provide funding to support program costs for children from families that are no more than 200 percent above the poverty line.

Data and assessment systems. Requiring states to collect information on quality, as the administration proposes, is the necessary first step in improving services. We have learned from rigorous research on K-12 public education that quality varies widely by classroom and school. For instance, variations in classroom quality in kindergarten are significantly related to college attendance rates and labor market earnings. We also have evidence of substantial variation in the quality of adult-child interactions in child-care settings.

Curriculum. Childrens pre-academic skills including vocabulary, knowledge of the world, letter recognition, and phonemic awareness are strongly associated with academic outcomes during elementary school. The administrations commitment to linking federal funding to the requirement that preschool programs have a rigorous curriculum is important and evidence-based.

Curtains for Head Start (as we know it). A recently released high- quality federal study found that traditional Head Start programs serving 4-year-olds do not enhance the academic, social, or health outcomes of Head Start children as they progress through elementary school. This is a serious blow to an expensive federal program that has school readiness as its primary goal.

The sequester is expected to cut $400 million from the program this year. But my surmise is that, wherever possible, the administration intends to support the expansion of state pre-K programs for 4-year-olds at the expense of traditional Head Start. …

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