Book Review: Can Pre-K Address Income Inequality?

As we at EdCentral have often written, the political buzz around pre-K is stronger now than ever. Much of this recent momentum is a result of compelling economic research suggesting that high-quality early education programs can improve children’s progress measured against a bevy of different academic and social indicators stretching to—and beyond—high school graduation. High-quality pre-K can improve these students’ adult earnings and their likelihood of getting a diploma. It makes it less likely that they’ll have children out of wedlock, be arrested, or go on public assistance. And in the short-term, it supports increased parental employment by giving parents a safe, educationally-rigorous place to put their children during the workday.

It almost seems too good to be true! Pre-K put three women on the moon in the 1940s (But the news media, as is customary, wasn’t paying attention to early education, and missed the whole thing)! Pre-K is also the secret catalyst required for cold fusion!

Ok. Those last two aren’t strictly based in research. But the point stands: the rewards of investing in pre-K are enormous. And Tim Bartik’s new book, From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education, offers even more evidence supporting public pre-K investments. After a comprehensive, accessible treatment of the case for public investment in high-quality pre-K, Bartik outlines a “full-scale proposal for early childhood education.” His proposal includes universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds in addition to developmental child care, pre-K, and home visiting programs for children from low-income families in the years before pre-K. He calculates that

For low-income families, this proposal would offset most of the increased income inequality since 1979; for middle-income Americans, this proposal would offset one-sixth of the increased income inequality.

Bartik’s proposal is more than just pre-K, but given the growth in income inequality over the last 35 years, that’s still a big promise. The earnings of low-income households would have needed to increase by 31 percent (in real terms) over that period to keep pace with “the growth of average household income.” Bartik estimates that high-quality child care and pre-K for low-income families could raise adult earnings 26 percent for children from these families. Home-visiting programs might also add to that a bit.

Your enthusiasm mileage may vary on this, given your views of the politics of income inequality. As Bartik puts it, his proposal could help with “offsetting recent inequality trends,” which is not the same thing as settling them for good. But his calculations offer new ways of talking about pre-K beyond the now-familiar “every dollar spent on pre-K returns $10 in savings and benefits for society.”

And that analysis really exemplifies the core strength of From Preschool to Prosperity. While early education has gotten hot enough in recent years to attract the mainstream media, their coverage often glosses over (or misrepresents) research on which policies work best. There’s a reason for this—good studies on pre-K’s effects are technically-complex and can be a strenuous read. Bartik bridges the distance between accessibility and expertise. From Preschool to Prosperity is supremely organized and readable, but it’s also jammed full of useful information. It’s the book for anyone who’s been following New York City’s pre-K expansion…and wants to know why it’s such a big deal. It’s the book for anyone who’s heard the (aforementioned) stats on the return on investing in pre-K…and finds themselves wondering just how researchers come up with those numbers.

Honestly, it’s a great book for anyone whose interest or expertise in early education doesn’t extend to knowledge of cutting-edge economic research in the field. Readers will finish the book better able to explain the “why” and “how” of high-quality pre-K. That’s information worth having, since pre-K’s political prominence hasn’t necessarily translated into more high-quality pre-K seats for American students. And we don’t need sophisticated research to know that ineffective rhetoric supporting access to high-quality pre-K does nothing for kids.

 

Disclosure: I offered comments on an earlier manuscript version of From Preschool to Prosperity.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams