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Universal Pre-K: An Important Asset for Child Development

”Universal Pre-K: An Important Asset for Child Development” is a new article from Equity for Children that highlights how most pre-k programs today came to fruition after early education initiatives started in the US in the 1960s, and US-based evidence that illustrates their effectiveness.

The Evolution of Pre-Kindergarten in the United States

The Universal Pre Kindergarten debate has emerged at the forefront of education discourse since President Obama’s State of the Union Address on February 12, 2013. Policies for early childhood development such as universal Pre-K are crucial for overall social and economic development, as they are fundamental to a child’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual development in the early years.1

Recognizing early childhood education as a priority in the United States began after the declaration of The War on Poverty in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.2 Thereafter, experts gathered to create a child development program aimed at assisting disadvantaged preschool aged children and to help overall community development. The push for quality universal pre-K advanced further because of solid evidence that intervention at an early age is most effective in preventing disabilities and preparing children for primary school learning. In addition to scientific evidence and demonstrated benefits of an early start to a child’s education, pre-kindergarten education grew as more women entered the workforce, as sole financial providers or as part of a dual income family.3 In 1975, the labor force participation rate of women with children surpassed the rate of women without children in a shift toward more dual earning households.4 Women presently make up half of the workforce and early childhood centers and day care centers are crucial. “The poverty rate for women is at the highest in two decades, women lost ground in the Great Recession and basic necessities like child care and housing remain unaffordable for too many,” expressed a spokesperson for the Center for American Progress.5

The Supporting Evidence

The argument in favor of universal pre-kindergarten education is supported by studies about its positive benefits. These studies and the extensive literature show that initiatives to provide pre kindergarten education jump-start a child’s learning and greatly benefit children faced with the challenges of poverty. Pre-kindergarten programs serve as a way to “level the playing field” and begin to tackle the issue of equity.

Not only does a pre-k education aid in the most crucial years of a child’s brain growth and development, but the benefits of receiving this education appear down the road as well. The Perry Project study of 1962, for example, demonstrates that children in such programs perform well on content-knowledge tests while showing positive socialization and a greater ability to work well in a structured environment.6 In general it has been proven that at the time of high school enrollment, those with a pre-kindergarten education have higher achievement levels, tend to spend more time on homework and express more that they value their education. As shown in the Perry Project study, adults who have participated in Pre-K programs tend to be employed and hold jobs more, earn higher income, manage their money more responsibly, account for lower divorce rates and reduced rates of crime.7 Furthermore, The Perry Project study showed that fathers who had participated in pre-school education programs were more willing to play a role in raising their children. Both men and women who had participated tended to maintain positive relationships with their families.

From an economic standpoint, long term results show that having programs in place, particularly for the disadvantaged population, saves money for the public over time. For every $1 invested in high-quality pre-K education, $7 is eventually saved through a reduction in crime and high-school drop out rates.8 The universality of quality pre-kindergarten education also makes a great contribution to equality and fairness.

Is Universal Pre-kindergarten an Investment without Sufficient Return?

Despite arguments in favor of universal pre-kindergarten education, naysayers insist that achieving the aforementioned results requires a larger investment than its ultimate value. They maintain that the billions of dollars required for investment in quality pre-kindergarten education is not merited, if only because the results show small differences in social-emotional, health and parenting practices after third grade. Their claim that the Head Start program demonstrates improved cognitive skills and school readiness that decrease by third grade is countered by their counterproposal that first and second grade education should improve their quality instead.9

The Model Southern States

The states of Oklahoma and Georgia support the case of pre-kindergarten education through positive impact. Oklahoma began its universal pre-k program after passage of a 1998 law providing state-funded pre-school for all four year olds. When initiated, Oklahoma’s state-funded programs enrolled 9,000 children. Currently, 40,000 are enrolled and access is available to all pre-school aged children. The law included quality standards such as student-teacher ratios that do not exceed 10 to 1, class sizes below 20, lead teachers required to have an early-childhood certificate and a bachelor’s degree and early childhood educators paid on the same salary scale as K-12 teachers. Research conducted at Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children shows that students in Oklahoma’s pre-k program, irrespective of class and racial lines, consistently outperform those not enrolled.10

The success of the state of Georgia’s Pre-Kindergarten program was recently documented in a 2011 study by the University of North Carolina, which concluded that those enrolled in the pre-kindergarten program were progressing faster than expected.11 Ranking fourth in the nation for enrollment, Georgia is one of the only states that has attained 10 quality benchmarks as demonstrated by the NIEER (National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutger’s) evaluation, which proved that the state’s program met the following standards: teacher education levels, small class sizes and manageable student-teacher ratios. Georgia was one of the first states to adopt voluntary Pre-K for all children while maintaining access. Statewide enrollment in 2010 and 2011 reached 83,000, with 66 percent of all four year olds served by Head Start and Pre-K programs. Another impact study by the Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill observed that a sample of 509 children during the 2011-2012 school year exhibited great growth throughout their Pre-K year across all areas of learning, including literacy and language, math and general behavioral skills. The observed learning benefits were even greater among Spanish speaking learners, who demonstrated gains in both English and Spanish.12

The United States and Moving Forward with Universal Pre-K

As pointed out in Equity for Children’s interview with Director Alberto Minujin and the Young Lives project’s Martin Woodhead, the growing evidence of the positive impact of quality care and education earlier in life has the ability to reduce poverty and inequality. Early childhood education should be viewed as a true right to be exercised by children through increased access and quality of programs. Furthermore, investing in universal pre-kindergarten education is a way to overcome greater costs incurred by disadvantaged youth when they grow older.13 As expressed by CEO of The Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden, “There’s one set of policies that addresses the needs of women and working families, reduces inequality, and ensures children enter school ready to learn: universal pre-K and high quality child care."14 In the face of economic hardship, we find a solution to equity for future generations by strengthening the argument for universal pre-k and by continuing to demonstrate its ability to reduce inequalities between the rich and poor -- eventually helping to break the cycle of poverty.

1. Vargas-Baron, Emily. Planning Policies for Early Childhood Development: Guidelines for Action. 2005. Retrieved from

2. (2009). Head Start: An Office of the Administration for Children and Families Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. Retrieved from

3. Kamerman, B. Sheila & Gatenio-Gabel Shirley. Early Childhood Education and Care in the United States: An Overview of the Current Policy Picture. International Journal of Childcare and Education Policy. 2007, Vol. 1, No.1, 23-34.

4. OECD. (2006). Starting Strong II: Early Childhood Education and Care. Retrieved from

5. Brown, C. et al. (2013, February 7). Investing in Our Children. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

6. Svrluga, Susan. (2013, February 20). In D.C., public school for 3-year olds is already the norm. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

7. (2013). Early Lessons: The Study Continues. Retrieved from

8. Banchero, Stephanie. (2013, March 7). Public Preschool’s Test Case: Oklahoma’s Expanded Access Shows Benefits, Hiccups; Classes in Strip Malls. The Wall Street Journal, A3. Retrieved from

9. Hymowitz, K. (2013, February 18). Universal pre-school not the solution. USA Today. Retrieved from

10. Khimm, Suzy. (2013, February 14). Is Oklahoma the right model for universal pre-k?. The Washington Post: Wonkblog. Retrieved from

11. (2013, March 19). The relative cost of education and the lack of it. Ledger-Enquirer. Retrieved from

12. (2013). Bright from the Start: Pre K. Retrieved from

13. 2011, October 30). Early Childhood. Retrieved from

14. Peters, K. (2013, February 7). Release: CAP proposes Universal Access to High Quality Preschool and expanded Access to Child Care for Infants. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

Tags: US Early Education, Early Education in the United States, Childhood Development, Universal Early Education, Universal Pre-K, Head Start Program, Early Education and Childhood Development, Mandatory Early Education, Early Education, Universal Pre-K: An Important Asset for Child Development, Universal Preschool Education, Debates on Early Education, Jessica Tallarico, Arguments Against Early Education, Benefits of Early Education By Jessica Tallarico at Equity for Children
Published Apr. 8, 2013 10:56 AM - Last modified Apr. 17, 2013 3:33 PM