PreK | Research

Should 'Preschool for All' Take a Targeted Approach?

There's a conundrum facing universal preK. According to researchers, the disadvantaged see definite benefits from free preschool, with mid-term academic gains and increased "quality" parental involvement. But when preschool is available to all, those who can afford private schools begin to switch to the free, public system, causing a "crowd out" that, among other things, increases costs to taxpayers by "as much as 19 percent" while providing no discernible benefits.

In a paper delivered at the fall 2013 Brookings Panel on Economic Activity earlier this month, "The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education," researchers Elizabeth Cascio (Dartmouth College) and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (Northwestern University) examined the impact of universal preschool programs in two states — Georgia and Oklahoma — which serve as potential models for President Obama's "Preschool for All" proposal owing to their similarities to the President's proposal.

The President's initiative, among many other things, calls for federal funding to cover the costs of preschool for 4-year-olds in families with low incomes — at or below 200 percent of the poverty threshold. (For a family of four with two children under 18, the poverty threshold is currently $23,283.) In addition, the proposal calls for states to broaden access to middle income families as well. It also calls for high-quality education, to be evaluated against a variety of benchmarks.

The researchers found that in systems where both the economically disadvantaged and the economically advantaged had free access to preschools, outcomes for the two groups were dramatically different.

For the disadvantaged, the researchers found, access to free preschool results in higher participation rates in preschool, more quality time with the mother (defined as activities such as reading, working on art projects, etc.) and mid-term academic gains (up to the eighth grade, the current limit of the data available on the Georgia and Oklahoma programs).

For higher-income participants, however, there were "no positive impacts on student achievement," according to the researchers. "These children are much less likely to be moved on the extensive margin of preschool enrollment, and instead are more likely to switch from private to public preschool in response to the program."

"This pattern of results raises the question of whether the proposal design could be altered to obtain the same positive impacts without inducing as much crowd-out. Could a targeted program meet these goals more efficiently?"

However, according to the researchers, the answer is not a simple one. The mere presence of students from higher-income families might have the effect of helping to improve the quality of the education the lower-income students receive: "Indeed, these programs might be 'high quality' not because they meet specific quality benchmarks, but rather because of improvements in the classroom environment from the presence of higher-SES children. We cannot rule out this possibility, and we think it is an important question for future research."

The complete paper is freely available as a PDF from the Brookings Institute site.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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