How Public Preschool Can Help, and How to Make Sure It Doesn’t Hurt

Child care centers have not been able to raise wages much because most parents can’t afford to pay more than they already do. The bill says that states must use the subsidies to pay child care workers and pre-K teachers “a living wage” (though it does not specify what that is), and one that is equivalent to that of an elementary teacher with the same degree. Now, kindergarten teachers earn more than double what preschool teachers do. Researchers say it’s hard to know whether the federal subsidies will be enough to match that, and whether states will agree to pay — states have the choice to opt out.

Subsidized child care and education benefit children from low-income families most, and multiple studies estimate that the long-term benefits are greater than the costs. That is not necessarily true for children from higher-earning families. Since programs that are open to all children cost considerably more, targeted programs are potentially more cost-effective.

Universal programs have other benefits, though. The gains for poor children are much bigger when preschools are open to all children, Elizabeth Cascio, an economist studying education and social policy at Dartmouth, has found. Families seem to be more invested in universal programs, and they are held to a higher standard.

Pre-K may have smaller benefits for more privileged children, but middle-class children still show improvements, according to long-term research on Tulsa’s pre-K program by William T. Gormley, a professor of public policy at Georgetown.

The Democrats’ plan would make pre-K universal, and by helping parents pay for child care, it could also make infant and toddler care less segregated. It requires that states expand access. Federal money must be spent in disadvantaged communities, and the entitlements for middle-class and rich families come later. That’s a thoughtful approach, said Professor Fuller, but if the plan does not achieve consistent quality across communities, it could “reinforce, not lessen, vast disparities in children’s early development,” he said.

It costs child care centers more to take care of infants and toddlers than those 3 and 4. Offering public pre-K without subsidizing those younger children can end up diverting money from child care centers. Those centers might then not be able to care for as many younger children, found research on New York City’s program by Jessica H. Brown, an economist at the University of South Carolina.

The Democrats’ plan addresses this in part by allowing child care centers to serve both preschoolers and those younger, so they don’t lose the funds that come with those 3 and 4. A bigger risk, researchers said, is that if the program is not extended after it expires in six years, the child care industry could be left without the money to support the changes already made.

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