There Are Better Ways To Support Children And The Economy Than Universal Pre-K

Advocates for early education on both sides of the aisle are working to improve young children's educational outcomes in ways that are affordable and accessible to parents.

Embedded in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation package is a proposal for all three- and four-year-olds to have access to universal preschool, regardless of their parents' income. The White House says its plan will help to improve children’s educational outcomes and make it easier for parents (and specifically mothers) to work. 

But the evidence that universal preschool is the best way to support children and parents is questionable, and existing research suggests there are better ways to achieve these important objectives. 

Most studies on universal preschool confirm that the greatest benefits of preschool accrue to low-income children who wouldn’t otherwise have access to high-quality care, in the home or outside of it. 

Research on other programs shows that nearly half of the enrollees in publicly-funded preschool programs would have otherwise been enrolled in private preschool, meaning that taxpayers were footing an expensive bill for something many families would have otherwise paid for.

Families want choice. Policymakers should listen and pursue a more targeted approach. In theory, a universal program could provide greater diversity and peer effects that would help close achievement gaps. But we haven’t seen much of this in practice.

Low-income students tend to be concentrated in the worst-performing public schools and achievement gaps have held steady. Unsurprisingly, these trends extend to universal preschool as well. Researchers at Berkeley recently uncovered growing achievement gaps among four-year-olds in New York City’s universal preschool program because the quality of each preschool varies widely, with falling quality for Black and Latino enrollees.

There’s little question that the most successful preschool programs of the last century have been highly targeted and intensive.

For example, the Perry Preschool Program and the Carolina Abecedarian Project focused on low-income Black children and their families in the 1960s and 1970s, providing in-home parental coaching and wraparound services in addition to high-quality preschool. 

But the evidence that universal preschool is the best way to support children and parents is questionable, and existing research suggests there are better ways to achieve these important objectives.

Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman found that these programs delivered lifelong gains for these children, with an impressive 13 percent per child, per year gain in improved health, education, and professional outcomes. His most recent research found that these gains extended to these children’s children, suggesting it could be a way to unlock intergenerational upward mobility. 

There’s every reason in the world to seek to replicate these successes and put money behind new and innovative programs targeted for at-risk populations. But this is apples and oranges with universal preschool, despite supporters often conflating the benefits of more targeted, highly intensive programs with universal ones.

Likewise, policymakers are right to focus on helping parents bridge care and work, especially given the pressure on women’s work from the COVID-19 pandemic. But universal preschool is a limited vehicle with which to do so. For example, there’s been little to no evidence of more mothers working as a result of universal public preschool programs in Oklahoma and Georgia, and the evidence from Washington D.C.’s program is mixed.

This might be because preschool is inherently limited as a childcare solution. Until a working parent’s youngest child is three, they need another care provider. Also, the preschool program may not line up with a typical work schedule, particularly if added onto a typical K-12 public school calendar. 

A more promising approach than universal preschool to support work is to expand the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC), which functions as a school choice program for early childhood care. 

Through the CDCTC, parents can choose their provider, length of care, and type of care—such as in-home and faith-based providers—allowing for programs that align with parents’ varying needs and schedules. The credit can be used for young children starting in infancy, not just those ages three and above. And it is targeted by income, instead of being a universal benefit.

Importantly, it also negates the need for a one-size-fits-all universal preschool program, which might crowd out other nontraditional providers. This matters because surveys show that parental preferences for care and work differ widely. 

As lawmakers navigate the best way to improve early childhood education and support working parents, they should strengthen targeted solutions that provide parents with options that support their unique needs and those of their families. The evidence base suggests that there are better ways to support children and the economy than universal preschool.

Learn more about U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's work on early childhood education.