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The Universal Benefits of Universal Pre-K

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Jan. 4, 2022

Throughout the final half of 2021, advocates across the country anxiously held their breath while politicians on Capitol Hill debated the fates of families on a wide range of matters tied up in the Build Back Better Act. While a lot of education-related proposals like free community college, eliminating student debt, and countless other ideas fell to the cutting room floor, federal funding for universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds has a real chance of survival.

When it became clear that universal pre-K could become a reality in America, our Early & Elementary Education team was full of hope, caution, and questions. How exactly will the federal government define and measure pre-K quality? What does a federal-state partnership for pre-K look like within a mixed-delivery system — one where public schools, private child care centers, and in-home family providers will be eligible to offer pre-K? Will conservative states choose to participate if it means they have to make changes to their current programs and eventually match federal funds?

Federally funded universal pre-K has the potential to greatly benefit families, children, and the economy at large. A substantial body of research finds that high-quality pre-K can have a meaningful impact on children’s short- and long-term development, providing them with valuable skills to succeed in school and beyond. And two years of pre-K for the child also means two years of reduced child care costs for the parents. A study in Washington, D.C., even found that access to universal pre-K improved mothers' workforce participation. And yet, despite such clear evidence of the benefits, six states still don’t offer state-funded pre-K programs for four-year-olds, and within the states that do, quality and access vary significantly depending on where a child lives, and very few programs offer universal access. But Build Back Better could provide states with the funding to improve the quality of programs and vastly expand access.

While details would still need to be ironed out in federal regulation, the quality components suggest that this is going to be a big lift for many states — one challenge will be meeting the act’s requirements around the workforce. Teachers are a key determinant of program quality, and Build Back Better may require all program staff to earn a living wage. It may also require that lead pre-K teachers earn salaries equivalent to those of elementary school teachers with similar credentials. Build Back Better has the ability to provide states with the opportunity to build up their current workforce. State plans would also need to ensure private child-care providers don’t lose revenue if older kids leave their programs to attend publicly-funded pre-K.

This year, our policy teams are going to be busily weighing in on forthcoming guidance and regulations related to all of the above elements, monitoring the possible rollout of universal pre-K, and highlighting success stories across the nation.

Our team will also focus on the transition from pre-K to kindergarten. The best pre-K programs are coordinated with the years before and after to ensure that children have an aligned and comprehensive experience from birth through third grade. Kindergarten and the early elementary grades must be strengthened so that a high-quality pre-K experience is followed by years of schooling that build on the momentum started in pre-K. Working directly with a handful of states and districts, it’s our priority to ensure that transition plans are in place that thoughtfully connect children’s and families’ experiences across the early years.

We will also spend this year thinking about how to ensure that pre-K student assessments are reliable, equitable, and helpful to teachers. There are currently many challenges in early childhood assessment, and we aim to promote equity-informed and culturally sensitive assessments that generate useful, actionable insights for teachers and parents.

With 2021 in the rearview mirror, 2022 brings all of these unique factors — and much more — to our radar. Paid leave, child care, teacher development efforts, community college funding, apprenticeships, and many others keep our team occupied in all eras, but this Build Back Better era has the potential to change the game. And we’re ready to do the work that’s needed.

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A Toolkit for Effective and Supportive Transitions for Children, Families, and Educators in Fall 2021 and Beyond (Education Policy, 2021): The COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting effects on young learners, families, and educators — disproportionately on low-income and non-white communities. Now, it’s crucial for decision-makers to prioritize supportive, transitional policies that combat pandemic trauma and uncertainty in early-childhood learning.

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