How Public Preschool Can Help, and How to Make Sure It Doesn’t Hurt

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Nov. 8, 2021Updated 6:48 a.m. ET

Congress is nearing a vote on a plan to spend $370 billion over six years on early childhood care and education in the United States. Government-supported child care can have lifelong benefits for young children and their families, but it depends how the policies are designed.

The proposal, part of the safety net spending bill, would make financial assistance for child care near-universal, and pre-K for all children ages 3 and 4 free. Democrats hope it is popular enough to be extended after six years.

Similar ideas have been tried in cities like Boston and New York City, and states like Oklahoma and Georgia. Most rich countries spend significantly more than the United States on helping families with child care, and it’s common for the option of public school to begin at age 3.

Research on these programs offers evidence about what works and what doesn’t.

How, and whom, it helps

The bulk of the research shows that high-quality preschool tends to benefit children into adulthood, especially children from low-income families.

In school, gains in achievement test scores don’t generally last past early elementary school, but other measures, like graduating from high school and not repeating grades, do. Most studies suggest a benefit in social-emotional skills — pre-K graduates show better self-control and are less likely to be suspended or arrested. They are also more likely to have health problems diagnosed early.

The effects are larger for children whose parents are poor; Black or Hispanic; or did not finish high school. Rich, highly educated families have more resources to provide high-quality options, at home or in private preschools — researchers say this is why some studies have found that children from high-income families do worse after public pre-K than their peers who don’t attend. The effects are also larger for boys. Other research shows that boys are more sensitive to both disadvantage and interventions.

The evidence is less clear-cut on child care for infants and toddlers. While some studies show the youngest children can thrive in high-quality programs, others suggest that attending center-based care before age 2 is associated with worse social skills or other behavior problems.

Child development is one of two aims of these policies. The other is enabling mothers to work. On that measure, child care subsidies clearly help, research shows. This may be the driver behind another benefit found in multiple studies: When children attend publicly funded programs, their parents tend to spend more time reading to them and showing affection at home.

Quality matters most

The clearest finding from the research is that the benefits come only when programs have high quality. Otherwise, they can do more harm than good.

A study on the effects of welfare reform found that work requirements without support for high-quality child care led to “intense exposure to low-quality care,” and that this had negative effects on children’s reading, math skills and behavior.

Quebec’s two-decade-old public child care has had uneven quality, with some studies finding emotional problems, physical aggression and decreased social skills for certain children. This was probably because alternatives like parental care or private child care centers were of higher quality, economists analyzing the data found.

Things that contribute to quality are a research-based curriculum; stimulating spaces and materials; education and coaching for teachers; and small group sizes. But the biggest piece, researchers said, is how the teachers interact with children — whether they are on the floor playing with them, using rich language, teaching problem-solving techniques and providing emotional support.

“The quality literature is pretty clear that credentials matter, yes, but what really matters is these moment-to-moment interactions,” said Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Education.

The bill in Congress includes quality thresholds. It says that within six years, all children should be able to secure a spot in a center of the highest quality. It also has grants that include teacher training and building improvements. Still, requiring quality doesn’t guarantee it. Studies of New York City’s public pre-K have found that quality is uneven, and that mostly white and Asian preschools had larger increases in quality than those in Black and poor areas. Achieving high quality nationwide, across new and existing preschools in such a short time, would be a much bigger challenge.

Quality starts with teachers’ pay

The No. 1 way to improve quality, researchers say, is to pay teachers more. Child care is one of the worst-paid professions in the country. The median wage for a child care worker is $12; for a preschool teacher, it’s $15. In Virginia, simply paying teachers a $1,500 bonus if they stayed for eight months decreased turnover by half.

“We have decades of research on what high quality means when we think about kids and learning, and it always comes down to the teachers,” said Daphna Bassok, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia who studied the state’s teacher retention program. “When you have a little extra money to get through life crises that hit hard when you live in poverty, you’re able to stay in your job, and we know that for little kids, keeping your teacher consistent, building warmth and connection, is the baseline level of quality.”

Child care centers have not been able to raise wages much because most parents can’t afford to pay more than they already do. The bill says that states must use the subsidies to pay child care workers and pre-K teachers “a living wage” (though it does not specify what that is), and one that is equivalent to that of an elementary teacher with the same degree. Now, kindergarten teachers earn more than double what preschool teachers do. Researchers say it’s hard to know whether the federal subsidies will be enough to match that, and whether states will agree to pay — states have the choice to opt out.

Universal or targeted?

Subsidized child care and education benefit children from low-income families most, and multiple studies estimate that the long-term benefits are greater than the costs. That is not necessarily true for children from higher-earning families. Since programs that are open to all children cost considerably more, targeted programs are potentially more cost-effective.

Universal programs have other benefits, though. The gains for poor children are much bigger when preschools are open to all children, Elizabeth Cascio, an economist studying education and social policy at Dartmouth, has found. Families seem to be more invested in universal programs, and they are held to a higher standard.

Pre-K may have smaller benefits for more privileged children, but middle-class children still show improvements, according to long-term research on Tulsa’s pre-K program by William T. Gormley, a professor of public policy at Georgetown.

The Democrats’ plan would make pre-K universal, and by helping parents pay for child care, it could also make infant and toddler care less segregated. It requires that states expand access. Federal money must be spent in disadvantaged communities, and the entitlements for middle-class and rich families come later. That’s a thoughtful approach, said Professor Fuller, but if the plan does not achieve consistent quality across communities, it could “reinforce, not lessen, vast disparities in children’s early development,” he said.

Preschool and child care are connected

It costs child care centers more to take care of infants and toddlers than those 3 and 4. Offering public pre-K without subsidizing those younger children can end up diverting money from child care centers. Those centers might then not be able to care for as many younger children, found research on New York City’s program by Jessica H. Brown, an economist at the University of South Carolina.

The Democrats’ plan addresses this in part by allowing child care centers to serve both preschoolers and those younger, so they don’t lose the funds that come with those 3 and 4. A bigger risk, researchers said, is that if the program is not extended after it expires in six years, the child care industry could be left without the money to support the changes already made.

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