Don't let Biden forget about universal pre-k

Tuesday, January 19, 2021 - 12:37am

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Graphic by Lauren Kuzee

In the wake of a contentious “culture war” election, it is easy for important policy promises to be forgotten. Much of President-elect Joe Biden’s appeal to many of his supporters was that he is not Donald Trump. Still, Biden came with his own array of policy promises. Some of them were simple and required no apparent capital investment, such as Biden’s promise that his team will lead with “science and truth.” Many of the president-elect’s proposals, however, will require significant capital investments and political will. 

Biden’s promise of providing universal prekindergarten for all 3 and 4-year-olds falls in the latter category. A universal preschool program would be highly beneficial to American families; it offers lifelong skills, an immense societal benefit and dramatic financial opportunities for parents. Unfortunately, this is a promise that may be obscured by other, more politically advantageous issues. 

To understand the importance of a universal prekindergarten program, we must understand how many of our preschool-aged children are currently enrolled in prekindergarten programs. As of 2018, only 68% of 4-year-olds and 40% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in some sort of pre-primary program. These are worryingly low metrics and leave the United States far behind other developed nations. Less than 70% of Americans between 3 and 5 years old were enrolled in some sort of pre-elementary program, compared to over 90% of children in France, Israel, Germany and 11 other countries in the same age group. This disparity could have significant consequences for America’s place in the international order. Biden himself has claimed, “Any country that out-educates us is going to out-compete us.”

Many children are deprived of a preschool education because of the cost — the median yearly price of child care in the U.S. has been calculated to be approximately $8,320. For a family living below the federal poverty line, up to a fifth of a family’s yearly income can be consumed through child care expenses. The benefits of universal preschool are not only present for the poorest Americans — child care costs consume between 7% to 12% of a family’s income for most middle-class Americans as well. 

The benefits of preschool programs for 3 and 4-year-olds are significant. Children who are enrolled in preschool programs have been observed to repeat grades significantly less often, enroll in more honors classes and score better on standardized tests. The prevailing theory for why preschool is so important is that it offers an extra opportunity for children to become accustomed to the school environment while receiving beneficial stimulation at the same time. These gains are much harder to make up later in a student’s education. 

Aside from the developmental advantages a preschool education confers, universal pre-K also has economic benefits for the people who are not sitting in those little plastic seats: the parents. When preschool is taken care of for parents, they have greater freedom to fully participate in the American labor market. In Michigan alone, there are over 49,000 parents who had to quit their jobs or make significant cutbacks in participation because of child care problems, according to a 2016 survey. Losing this many workers has real economic implications. Over 49,000 fewer workers means that there are fewer people who are able to contribute to the economy in the forms of manufacturing capacity, a healthy labor market, state tax revenues and more.

There is also the matter of efficiency. Researchers estimated that every dollar spent on the city’s near-universal preschool yielded about two dollars worth of societal benefits. The development of self-regulation skills during the ages of 3 to 5 is crucial and is more costly to compensate for later in life. In the midst of economic calamity, and with an enormous federal deficit, it is a critical time to invest in policies that pay for themselves several times over and lay the foundation for a stronger next generation of Americans. 

Michiganders in particular should be at the frontlines of advocating for universal preschool. Many educators and legislators look fondly on Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program, which has provided for the second year of kindergarten for many Michigan children. Michigan has seen the benefits for educating most of their 4-year-olds, but the end goal for preschool education should still be to provide for all 3 to 5-year-olds. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pushing for universal preschool for 4-year-olds by the end of her term, Michiganders will still benefit from a broader, federal approach to universal preschool. 

Biden and his administration may need an additional push to put universal pre-K front and center. Neither Biden nor Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have tweeted (an arbitrary but still important metric) on the topic of universal preschool since July 2020. This topic has been obscured by many meritorious causes, but nonetheless should not be overlooked. 

Since the President-elect and Vice President-elect’s tweets last summer, the weakness of our nation's child care infrastructure has been highlighted as millions of students fall behind in math, reading, etc. However, a president has a limited number of things that they can achieve. Though Biden comes into office with a clear mandate to captain a systemic recovery, his political purse nonetheless has a bottom. 

Former President Barack Obama, for instance, was very interested in expanding preschool, yet was met with a stony face from an unenthusiastic Congress. Biden will have a much better opportunity to affect change in pre-elementary education — unlike during the Obama years, universal preschool has many ardent supporters in Congress, such as U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, the chair of the powerful House Appropriations subcommittee.

Universal preschool has been demonstrated as a sound policy that will save Americans money in the long run while caring for our nation’s children. Even with Democratic control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, universal preschool legislation is unlikely to be enacted in the absence of strong, focused leadership. It will take passion from both the right and the left to ensure, amidst the ocean of change Biden hopes to enact, that this policy will stay in the spotlight.

Julian Barnard can be reached at jcbarn@umich.com.


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