We Can Scale High-Quality Public Pre-K—Can We Scale Effective Legislating?

Progressive Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously argued that states should be seen as "laboratories” of democracy suited for conducting “novel social and economic experiments.” Ever since, his insight has been used to support states' efforts to try reform policies tailored to meet their populations' diverse needs.

As we’ve noted before, many states—and cities—have been taking that role seriously when it comes to pre-K policy. While skeptics have stymied federal action by arguing that high-quality pre-K programs are too difficult to scale beyond intense, “boutique” pre-K programs like the famous Perry Project, officials in Boston, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C. (among other places) have gone ahead and expanded their programs anyway.

Yesterday, in a small meeting room in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol, experts summarized research showing that these efforts are, in fact, substantially improving student academic outcomes. The event, organized by the Society for Research in Child Development, was pegged to a recent research brief on new pre-K studies, “Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education” (New America held its own event on the brief last fall).

Georgetown's Deborah Phillips, NYU's Hirokazu Yoshikawa, and the University of Michigan's Christina Weiland covered the brief's findings. Analysis of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s program, for instance, showed academic benefits through third grade (and further research is planned to check for impacts at eighth grade). The effects were particularly strong for the math scores of boys and students who qualified for federal free- and reduced- price lunch.

The results are similarly good in Boston. The study found that pre-K helped all children, but was particularly helpful in several cases. It "closed the school readiness gap among poor and non-poor children in mathematics," and eliminated early reading and math gaps between Latino and White children.

Boston Public Schools’ Jason Sachs and the Community Action Project of Tulsa’s Steven Dow offered some background on the history of the programs. Interestingly, both identified the competition between school-based and community-based pre-K providers as a particularly challenging issue. Sachs and Down noted that many community-based child care providers have long used the resources that come with serving four-year-olds to cover the cost of serving relatively more expensive infants and toddlers. As public, school-based pre-K has covered more four-year-olds in Oklahoma and Boston, this has “crowded out” child care providers from that market—which is undercutting their ability to serve younger children as well.

Both sites are piloting programs to address “crowd out.” In Oklahoma, the state, in conjunction with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, has piloted a program (since 2006) to support birth to three programs across the state. In Boston, the city is piloting a pre-K expansion that would incorporate community-based providers—and double public pre-K capacity within four years.

By the end of the event, I started to wonder: if we know that high-quality public pre-K investments make a huge difference in students’ lives, but we still can’t convince skeptics at the federal level, perhaps we’ve been thinking about laboratories of democracy all wrong. At this point, we have more than enough evidence that pre-K programs can be effectively scaled. That experiment works. Congress should expand it, and they should do it yesterday.

What policy folks need now, though, is to figure out how to scale effective legislating. How are states like Oklahoma able to take evidence and translate it into policy? Can we scale this approach at the federal level? How? Research suggests that the Strong Start Act’s federal-state partnerships could work: the real question is whether Congress can function well enough to put them in place."

Author:

Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learner National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, and school choice.

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