NIEER Statement on President Obama’s Pre-K Proposal

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Contact: Jen Fitzgerald, 848-932-3138, jfitzgerald@nieer.org

New Brunswick, NJ – The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), a research center at Rutgers University, issued the following statement today from economist, early education expert, and NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett:

“We at NIEER are thrilled that President Obama highlighted preschool in both his State of Union address on Tuesday and today in a speech in Decatur, Georgia. The President’s statements have brought early education on to the national stage.  I echo the President’s statement that, ‘Education has to start at the earliest possible age. ...  Let's make sure none of our children start the race of life a step behind.’

The President’s emphasis on return on investment was particularly gratifying as I was one of the researchers on the Perry Preschool study who first noted the high returns to preschool ($7 to $1) over 20 years ago. Of course much has happened since then.  Estimated returns to early education for disadvantaged children have risen higher and new evidence of benefits for the middle class has accumulated. As the President stated, the evidence for preschool’s success is substantial and far beyond the Perry Preschool Program. A recent meta-analysis summarizing 123 studies found overwhelming evidence of long-term returns in the U.S.  Abroad, where universal pre-K is often the norm, a number of studies have found that all children benefit through adulthood (higher achievement and greater earnings) even though the most disadvantaged benefit more. A recent twins study by Elliot Tucker-Drob found that preschool participation is most valuable for the most disadvantaged but the benefits remain substantial even at the average for socio-economic status or home environment. A randomized trial in Rhode Island demonstrates that both low- and middle-income families’ children gain meaningfully. From all these studies, the conclusion is that early education can have substantive short- and long-term effects on cognitive and social-emotional development, as well as on school achievement, while reducing inequality, antisocial behavior, and even crime. So how can we choose not invest in it? 

The President’s pre-K proposal would help states provide high-quality preschool education for low- and middle-income families, which is crucial considering that children of lower income groups start kindergarten more than a year behind in language and math than their upper income peers. Among children from low-income families, more than 1 in 3 attends no preschool program at age 4 and most who do attend a program do not receive a high-quality education. For those lucky enough to attend a state-funded program, real spending per child declined during the Great Recession, sapping quality. Children in higher income families have better access to programs, but those are not necessarily of high quality. The President’s plan seeks to ensure that all 4-year-olds can access quality programs, which will put children on an early path to success. This proposal improves opportunity for everyone, offering a hand up to lower and middle-income families that will help them reach the American dream.

In the coming days and weeks, we will be eagerly following the details of this proposal, hoping to see a bipartisan pre-K plan move through Congress that supports high-quality preschool education for families and states most in need of expanded opportunities. America’s children deserve nothing less."

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The National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org), a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research.