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Universal Preschool Increases Enrollment, but Crowds Out Private Preschool for the Well-Off

Lower-income children’s test scores improved significantly; no increase in maternal labor force participation


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President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., on Feb. 14, 2013. The president called on Congress to make access to high-quality preschool universal in his 2013 State of the Union address.

Expanding access to preschool programs, as advocated in President Barack Obama’s “Preschool for All” initiative, would have positive effects on the preschool enrollment of all 4-year-olds, but if access is free regardless of income, it could lead many children to switch out of the private system and into the public program, according to a new paper presented on September 19 at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. This “crowd-out” should be an important consideration as states would have to decide on the level of cost-sharing for middle-class families under the Obama plan should it pass Congress, the paper’s authors suggest.

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Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

In “The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education,” Dartmouth economist Elizabeth Cascio and IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University examine the effects of the introduction of universal preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma in the 1990s, comparing the children and families in those states with children and families elsewhere in the country. They find stark differences in preschool enrollment patterns by family background, with children whose mothers have no more than a high school diploma being much more likely to enroll in preschool at age 4—experiencing an 18–20 percentage-point enrollment gain versus a 12–15 percentage-point gain in preschool enrollment rates for children whose mothers have more education.  The authors also find that about half of the enrollees (4 to 5 out of every 10 participants) with more-educated mothers would have otherwise enrolled in private preschool, with this crowd-out causing costs of the program to taxpayers to increase as much as 19 percent overall. 

Disadvantaged families, who gain more from the program in overall preschool participation, also show gains in overall maternal quality time spent with children—time spent reading, playing, doing art projects, and talking. The authors also find some academic benefits, with modest, sustained increases in 8th grade math test scores for the lower-income children. Conversely, among higher-income children, the authors find no positive impacts of the program on student achievement. On the other hand, the families that switch to public programs do benefit from the program financially, seeing a significant reduction in their childcare spending—between $3,300 and $5,600—money that is then freed up for other purposes.

Turning to labor market impacts and use of preschool as a form of childcare, Cascio and Schanzenbach find little evidence to suggest that the Georgia and Oklahoma programs have increased a woman’s chances of working when her child is 4 years old. 

The authors suggest it might be more cost-effective to design a preschool program to target those most in need to reduce the extent of crowd-out. They acknowledge, though, such targeting could undermine its effectiveness for lower-income children if exposure to higher-income peers in universal preschool classrooms plays an important role. 

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is associate professor of human development and social policy, an IPR fellow, and chair of IPR's Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies Program. The paper was presented at the Fall 2013 Conference on the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. 

Source: Brookings

Photo credits: Official White House photo by Pete Souza; D. W. Schanzenbach photo by Jim Ziv.