New Report: Middle-Class Families in Difficult Pre-K Pinch

  • November 12, 2008

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For far too many middle-class families, the very program proven to help all young children enter school ready to learn and succeed is beyond their reach, according to a new report released today by Pre-K Now. "The Pre-K Pinch: Early Education and the Middle Class" reveals that eligibility requirements and prohibitively high costs lead such families to sacrifice basic household needs to pay for early education and care for their children, or to settle for low-quality options with unproven benefits.

"This report reveals a quiet tragedy occurring across the country, one that is straining families and preventing children from getting the early learning opportunities they need," said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now. "In spite of their commitment to education and valiant efforts to stretch the household budget, a huge number of families are still locked out of the rooms that would prepare their children to thrive in school and in life."

Through quantitative analysis and personal stories, the report demonstrates middle class families' need for and struggle to afford quality early education programs when they do not qualify for state pre-kindergarten programs. Unlike K-12, state pre-k programs for 3- and 4- year-olds primarily target low-income children. Of the 38 states that fund pre-k programs, 20 use family income as an important or the sole criterion for eligibility. In most of these states, families earning more than 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold ($42,400 for a family of four) are not eligible.

Meanwhile, the cost of early education programs has risen faster than inflation for more than a decade: Between 1996 and 2006, while overall prices rose by about 30 percent, the cost of early education and care increased 60 percent. Often, these programs rank as one of the top two or three most costly household expenditures above food, healthcare, and even in-state college tuition.

"The Pre-K Pinch" reveals two false assumptions underlying income-eligibility limits: first, that such families can afford other kinds of early education and care programs; second, that children from middle-income households don't need and wouldn't significantly benefit from pre-k. Overwhelming evidence indicates that neither of these assumptions is valid.

The report also includes recommendations to policymakers and the incoming Obama administration. Among them:

  • Lawmakers should phase-in a gradual expansion of pre-k, beginning with the most vulnerable children and moving to include those in the middle class.
  • Programs should consider eligibility factors outside of income to include more children, such as those from single-parent homes and military-connected families.
  • Full-day programs, rather than half-day programs, would better meet the needs of working families.

"The cost of early education and care is one of the highest expenses for families with young children," said Albert Wat, the report's primary author. "Although many states face tight budgets, increasing access to pre-k would provide relief to middle-class families and would more than pay for itself in cost savings down the road," said Wat.

To speak with families who have agreed to share their stories, please contact Holly Barnes Higgins at Pre-K Now.

Read the related Pre-K Pinch Q&A on the Pre-K Now Web site.

Pre-K Now collaborates with state advocates and policymakers to lead a movement for high-quality voluntary pre-kindergarten for all three and four year olds. The following funders contribute to making this important work possible: The Pew Charitable Trusts, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development, RGK Foundation, CityBridge Foundation, and the Schumann Fund for New Jersey.

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