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What the House Budget Committee Report Got Right and Wrong About Early Childhood Education

SOURCE: AP/Steve Pope

Angie Clark, a preschool teacher, reads to a group of 4- and 5-year-old students at Mitchell Elementary School, Tuesday, March 29, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.

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On Monday, the House Budget Committee released a report on a broad range of social service and education programs. The report addresses early childhood education programs, including Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund. Here is a look at what the report got right and what it got wrong.

What the committee got right in its review

Early childhood education improves lifetime outcomes

A well-established body of research demonstrates that high-quality early childhood education programs can prepare children for success in school and in life. Studies in GeorgiaNew Jersey; Oklahoma; and Boston, Massachusetts, demonstrate that children who attend high-quality programs benefit from them. On average, children who attend high-quality preschool gain four months of additional learning, and high-quality programs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Boston have shown 6 to 12 months of additional learning. Gains are particularly pronounced for low-income children, and several states have found particular benefits for Hispanic children.

Three well-known longitudinal studies were among the first to establish the long-term and far-reaching impacts of early childhood education: the HighScope Perry Preschool Project; the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, or CPC, program; and the Carolina Abecedarian Preschool program. These studies provided intensive interventions with high standards and showed not only immediate academic gains but also benefits into adulthood, such as reduced need for public assistance, lower crime rates, and higher earnings.

The country needs a consolidated, well-funded, early childhood system

Current investments in early childhood are grossly underfunded. At current funding levels, the Head Start program reaches just half of all eligible preschoolers, and Early Head Start reaches 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers. The Child Care and Development Fund reaches about one-quarter of eligible children, and as of last February, 19 states have waiting lists or frozen intake.

State preschool programs are also underfunded, reaching just 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds. The per-child spending rate is quite low; it averaged $3,841 in 2012, down $1,100 since 2001. Many states have set ambitious goals when it comes to expanding access to preschool, but only a handful of them have been able to reach most preschool-aged children.

Early childhood education programs are bifurcated and have different quality standards, eligibility rules, and funding and governance structures. Aligning early childhood programs to create a seamless trajectory of high-quality, well-funded child care, Head Start, and preschool programs for children from birth to age 5 should be a federal and state policy goal. It will require a large federal investment in partnerships with states.

Investments in early childhood education can reduce high school dropout rates

Evaluations of early childhood education programs consistently find positive impacts on high school graduation rates, including studies of Head Start and longitudinal studies of early preschool programs. Further analysis shows that expanding preschool would increase the high school graduation rate from 70 percent to 81 percent.

Child care subsidies support labor-force participation and education

Child care can often cost more than a low-wage worker’s salary. The average cost of a child care center varies by state but reaches $16,000 annually for an infant and $11,000 for a 4-year-old. For families living below the federal poverty level, child care costs comprise 36 percent of their monthly salary. The cost of a child care center for two children exceeds the median annual rent in every state. Without child care assistance, many poor families simply cannot afford to work.

Some families cannot afford highly regulated child care centers

Child care subsidy rates in many states are too low to help families afford high-quality child care, which includes many licensed child care centers that tend to be more expensive than informal child care arrangements that vary in quality. This is why funding for the Child Care and Development Fund should be expanded and child care subsidy rates should be increased. Doing so would ensure that all low-income children have access to child care subsidies and that parents can choose a high-quality provider that meets their needs.

What the committee got wrong

Head Start does not improve student outcomes

A 2012 study by the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, found that children who attend Head Start make important gains during the program and enter kindergarten with better cognitive and socioemotional skills than their peers who do not attend the program. In addition, other longitudinal studies have found that children who attend Head Start are less likely to need special education or be retained a grade in elementary school, and they graduate high school at higher rates.

The same HHS study found no measurable differences between children who attended the Head Start program and those in the comparison group at third grade. But there were numerous issues with the study that could have affected the results—namely, that many children in the comparison group attended Head Start or another preschool program before third grade. Given that the so-called “fade out” occurred when children were in elementary school, it’s worth considering what reforms to the K-12 education system could help sustain and enhance the benefits children gain early on in Head Start. Improving children’s long-term academic success will require a trajectory of high-quality early learning and elementary school programs that support healthy child development and learning.

Children in Tennessee’s Voluntary State Pre-K did not improve student outcomes

A Vanderbilt University study found that children who participated in the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program had improved academic skills and were rated more highly by their kindergarten teachers in regard to preparedness for school. Initial results from first grade do not show differences in academic skills, but children who participated in preschool were less likely to be retained in kindergarten. Full results on children’s academic skills will be available after they reach third grade.

The committee also neglects to mention that a number of states and communities have found robust positive impacts from preschool programs, including GeorgiaNew Jersey, Oklahoma, and the city of Boston. A study of Oklahoma’s preschool program found substantial gains for children on pre-literacy and problem-solving skills. Another study in Georgia found that children made significant improvements in language, literacy, math, and behavioral skills. New Jersey’s Abbott preschool program produced similar results: Researchers found increases in children’s vocabulary, print awareness, and math skills.

Child care subsidies have insignificant effects on labor-force participation

The House Budget Committee report seemingly contradicts itself, stating that child care subsidies both improve labor-force participation and have an insignificant impact on it. The committee cites a study conducted in Norway. Given the vast cultural differences and very different approaches to social welfare programs and early childhood education programs between the United States and Norway, this study is not germane to the impact of child care subsidies in our country.

Child care subsidies are associated with worse maternal health outcomes

Another study cited by the House Budget committee compared families that received child care subsidies to single mothers, regardless of whether they were eligible for a child care subsidy. Given that those receiving child care subsidies are more likely to be poor, it is not surprising that maternal health outcomes and parenting stress were worse for this population. It is also the case that improvements to the child care subsidy system would help negate these issues for low-income families. Families often churn in and out of the child care subsidy system, losing assistance within months of receiving it. Often, subsidy levels are too low to allow families access to high-quality programs. Providing families with consistent access to high-quality child care would likely ameliorate the stress of unstable child care and concerns about children’s safety and well-being during work hours.

Child care subsidies have negative effects on child development

Children who attend high-quality child care programs start kindergarten with better cognitive and social skills. These benefits can be detected into second grade. Low-income children appear to benefit most from high-quality child care experiences. Low-quality child care can negatively affect children’s development, which is why the federal government and states should take steps to ensure that child care programs not only meet minimum health and safety standards but also provide a nurturing and enriching environment that supports children’s development and school readiness.

Early childhood programs in this country are underfunded and fail to reach a majority of children and families. Many programs would also benefit from improvements in quality, particularly the Child Care and Development Fund. Where they have failed, it is because the federal government has not invested resources to support broad access to quality programs. The families that can access these services benefit immensely; these services help prepare children for school and help parents gain employment. For millions of families, early childhood education is a lifeline that lifts them out of poverty and gives children a chance to succeed in school and in life. Our approach should be to bolster and improve these programs.

Katie Hamm is the Director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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