Investing public money in high-quality pre-kindergarten education is an opportunity our country cannot afford to pass up. Pre-k returns up to $7 for every dollar invested, and four decades of research show that it provides the foundation for building a strong workforce for future generations. That's why Democrats and Republicans have increased state funding for preschools by more than $2 billion and enrollment in state-run pre-k programs has grown by more than 330,000 since 2004.
Despite the impressive funding gains, though, less than 30% of the nation's 3- and 4-year-olds are served by publicly funded early education. Worse, almost half a million children from low-income families are among those being left behind. Federal action is needed urgently to reinforce states' progress and accelerate the growth of early learning programs.
Data collected by the Pew Center on the States' pre-k Now campaign show that 28 states increased or held steady pre-kindergarten funding for Fiscal Year 2010 – astonishing given the fiscal stress that states are under and a clear signal of the value placed on pre-k. But budget gaps are projected to persist, and in some cases widen, over the next two years. Cuts like those in Ohio, where 12,000 children lost pre-k opportunities, foreshadow trouble ahead.
A new federal proposal focused on children, the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which the U.S. Senate is taking up in October, is a promising but incomplete plan in need of critical improvements. The challenge fund would offer $1 billion per year for eight years in competitive grants to states, to improve quality and coordination among programs serving children from birth to age 5. The version of the bill approved this month by the U.S. House, however, lacks incentives to encourage significant expansions of high-quality early learning programs.
The Senate could strengthen the bill considerably by making the following changes:
These new resources would motivate governors and legislators to put more state dollars into pre-k and provide returns for decades to come. From improved academic outcomes to the economic savings to schools and states, the benefits of high-quality pre-kindergarten education are irrefutable. In addition to reduced juvenile crime and violence, high-quality pre-k increases high school graduation rates, reduces grade repetition and reduces the number of students placed in special education.
But to maximize results for children and return on investments for taxpayers, federal action is needed beyond the Early Learning Challenge Fund. We also need to ensure that high-quality pre-k is the first step in all major education reform efforts – including the Race to the Top Fund in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In a recent commentary by Chester E. Finn Jr., he claims that the Pew Foundation – my organization – "is easing back from, if not abandoning, its quest for universal pre-school." Last month, though, Pew's Board of Directors approved another significant investment for this work based on the same principal that has driven our strategy from the start: Americans' tax dollars must be invested in programs proven to work and generate the highest returns.
State after state has looked at the data and made sensible investments in pre-kindergarten education. Now, federal lawmakers have a chance to make a new important investment in children's earliest learning years.
Susan K. Urahn is the managing director of the Pew Center on the States in Washington, D.C.