Why America Should Have Universal Early Education for Young Children

Many Americans with young children want to prioritize both their family and their work. But childcare and preschool can be expensive. For families with incomes below $18,000 who pay for out-of-home care, the average cost amounts to 40% of their household income. For those with incomes between $18,000 and $36,000, the average is 20% of their income. Faced with such unaffordable expenses, some parents settle for care that is mediocre or poor. In other families, the mother may simply forgo employment.

We can do better. The solution is universal early education for kids aged one to four.

The employment rate for U.S. mothers whose youngest child is six to sixteen years old is comparable to the rate for such mothers in Denmark and Sweden. But for mothers with a child younger than six, the U.S. employment rate is 15 percent lower. Affordable, good-quality early education isn’t available to many American families with very young children, but it is available to all Danish and Swedish families at early education centers. In Denmark and Sweden, early education teachers get training and pay comparable to elementary school teachers, so the quality of early education tends to be high, and the cost to parents is capped at less than 10% of a household’s income.

Early education has another benefit: it helps to equalize opportunity by improving the capabilities of children from less advantaged homes. Researchers have not yet defined exactly how large this equalizing effect is, but even if it turns out to be small, early education programs still offer the vital benefit of enabling working parents to better handle and balance their obligations at work and in the family.

If the United States decides to institute early childhood education, what form should the effort take? To contain costs, some recommend that public funding for such programs be focused on children from households with low incomes. But a universal system – like America’s universal public school system – would have several important advantages. First, it isn’t just low-income parents who struggle to find good-quality care that’s affordable. Middle-class parents do too. Second, children can be disadvantaged in life by features of family structure or parental behavior that do not occur just among low-income people. If early education programs target only low-income households, many children who need help will be left out. Third, researchers know that children develop cognitively and learn social skills through interaction, and children from economically disadvantaged homes gain by mixing with kids from middle-class homes. Chances for many valuable interactions would be lost if early education was set up only for the poor.

Universal early education doesn’t have to be accomplished by a government monopoly. Providers of early education can be a mix of public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private groups. Parents could be given a voucher and allowed to choose among providers that meet quality standards. Some advocates prefer exclusively public provision, but Denmark and Sweden allow private providers, and the United States allows private charter schools to participate in publicly-funded elementary and secondary education. Similarly, in U.S. Medicare and Medicaid programs, public funds are used to pay for provision by private companies that meet certain standards and to buy services from private doctors and hospitals.

Can the United States afford to expand education this much? A good-quality universal early education system for one-to-four-year-olds would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of one percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This assumes that three-quarters of children would be enrolled and the cost would be about $12,000 per child, roughly what we spend on schools for kindergarten through twelfth grade. Denmark and Sweden spend about 1.5% of their Gross Domestic Products, but the U.S. economy is larger per person, so we wouldn’t need to spend quite as much of it to support a similarly good system.

Though tax revenues would have to be increased, for most Americans the impact would be small. If the distribution of the required new tax payments were the same as for existing tax payments, households in the bottom fifth of incomes would pay $133 more per year, those in the lower-middle fifth $333, those in the middle fifth $666, those in the upper-middle fifth $1,266, and those in the top fifth $4,200. In practice, the actual new costs would be a bit smaller, because U.S. governments already spend some public money on early education. The federal government funds Head Start, some special education services, and tax breaks for childcare; and some state governments fund preschool for four-year-olds and subsidize childcare for poor families.

Moreover, some of the needed revenue can come from user fees. Early education is different from police protection and health care, the kinds of services that almost no one opts to go without. Even if good early education programs were readily available, some families would choose not to use them because they prefer to provide stay-at-home parental care for their young children. And of course, some American adults have no children. This set of realities argues for having parents who do want to use early education pay something – even parents with low incomes. Here too the Nordic approach is sensible; in Denmark and Sweden programs charge on a sliding scale, with the fee rising in proportion to family income, but never going above 10%.

In the United States, getting to universal early education is likely to be a long and tricky political slog, just as earlier breakthroughs to eventually popular and taken-for-granted social programs have been. The most likely route runs through the states and cities. Places as diverse as Oklahoma and New York City have already moved to provide programs for four-year-olds, and as other states and cities follow suit, the pressure will mount for the federal government to get involved, so that Americans, wherever they may live, can gain access to good-quality early education programs that promise valuable benefits for children, parents, and the entire U.S. economy.

Early Childhood Education Pilot has Complex Mix of Concerns

Recently, the Office of Head Start (OHS) announced its 2014 recipients of the Birth-to-Five Pilot program. As a graduate of head start, head start training curriculum developer, and trainer, I am encouraged by the pilot.

If you know anything about head start, you realize how important it is as a community development tool when done effectively with integrity. That’s the OHS’s intention with this new initiative. It also serves to highlight the varied concerns that are important to any social program.

According to the Administration of Children and families,

ECE_coverOriginally announced last year, the pilot aims to give communities greater flexibility in designing Head Start and Early Head Start programs to better serve the needs of young children and communities from birth until they enter pre-k or kindergarten.

“The response to this Birth-to-Five pilot points to increased need for high-quality infant and toddler care through Early Head Start,” said Linda Smith, deputy assistant secretary and interdepartmental liaison for early childhood development for children and families. “This reinforces the administration’s early childhood plan to expand the home visiting program, increase access to infant and toddler care, and make pre-kindergarten available for all.” Read More


I do not think many are left who would argue that it is a good idea for providers to compete for the OHS program dollars. What may be missed is what the pilot also accomplished with expanding competition as one concern. They had to allow for innovation!

The OHS has a competency-based structure that is amenable to innovative programming, but the history-based insistence on traditional approaches, attempts to replicate post-K schooling, and some evaluative practices kept innovation to a minimum. This new pilot gave programs an intentional mandate to develop programs that meet the competencies in new ways. The competitive nature of the pilot meant that the best ideas competed rather than the “safest.” As the announcement states, continued funding will also be competitive. The OHS is also moving from indefinite grant periods to 5-year cycles overall. This will hopefully result in programs that focus on innovation, efficiency, and achievement of ALL competencies rather than inferior, reductive measures of child school readiness.

Starting Earlier

With the hype of baby developmental products matched with the desire of seemingly every parent to see her child read, potty train, and walk as soon as possible, some may miss the lessons of child development. A move to earlier child education is less about books and math. It is more about the environment. Children are each different. They develop at different paces. The environment, both structure and influences, is as important an ingredient as “education.”

It is paramount that we not forget that the primary contribution if head start programs is the provision of home visits and establishment of a network around parents. This network connects them with their communities. It engages them intentionally in the development of the child. This community and supportive environment is THE engine of education for the young child.

What many do not realize is that head start is the only social program that actively recruits recipients as staff. In fact, over 1.3 million adults volunteered through head start in 2011, the last year data has been tabulated. A mom or dad with the program can work as a teacher, family service worker, bus driver, or cook. He or she can work up to being a team leader or site manager. The esteem, mobility, and continued development of parents further enhances the environment that the child grows and learns within.

The Pre-K Prep Argument

Recent criticism of head start has focused on the research explaining that the gains of early childhood education even out with children not in such programs by 3rd grade. Those who are not familiar with the services of head start may not realize that the span between kindergarten and third grade represents a tremendous loss of services. It is my hope that the findings of the research give impetus to us for school improvement beyond kindergarten.

The studies in question recognized that children moving from head start to kindergarten were developmentally and academically ahead. By the time they were in 3rd grade, the other children had caught up. One way to interpret this is to say that the school system could not maintain the gains. But, I would rather focus on a question of competition, parental involvement, and community supports in the public school system. Consider what education would be and what our communities would be if schools operated like head start programs: If they competed each year on innovation, if their model was to develop community through parents, if the “service” to families was equal to the “education” mandate. I am looking forward to the day when OHS launches that pilot.

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