Key Considerations Around Pre-K Program Size and Financing

Continuing in our series on the Brookings Institute report “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,” Chapters 6-8 deal with the related topics of program size and program financing. While studies of the landmark Perry Preschool and Abecedarian projects demonstrate these programs’ effectiveness for school preparedness and other gains that last into adulthood, these programs were small-scale; any state or school district that wants to replicate the best programs has to consider, first, how large a program to operate—and by implication, which types of students to serve—and, then, how to pay it.

Budgetary considerations will no doubt be the first issue in mind for many organizations. The costs, which include:

  • staff compensation, which is impacted by teacher quality, student-teacher ratios and the length of the program (half-day vs. full-day);
  • facilities and supplies costs; and
  • overhead costs

all will be incurred up-front and on an on-going basis. The benefits, such as:

  • lower expenses for special education and grade retention;
  • improved job readiness and lifetime earnings;
  • lower crime rates; and even
  • improved long-term health outcomes for program participants

will be seen over the longer term, and only the first of these accrues directly to the school. How then, can policy makers correctly evaluate the benefits against the costs?

Based on studies of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers program, various groups participating in the Tulsa, OK universal pre-K program, and Head Start, the evidence suggest that there is a 2-1 to 4-1 net benefit-cost ratio over time, and some researchers claim even higher returns. These estimates should present strong incentives for a broad-based investment in early childhood learning programs. However, because the benefits are achieved in the longer-term, and do not accrue directly and immediately to the school itself, financing the programs will be a challenge.

It is also important to note that the benefit size is a function of quality: a lower-quality pre-k program, while less expensive to implement, also may have a lower net benefit. Even a proven model like the Perry Preschool will not have the same impact on a larger scale if the inputs aren’t scaled up commensurately.

Moreover, the size of the overall benefit to the state or district may depend on how the program is targeted. Current evidence shows that lower-income children appear to achieve higher relative gains than higher-income children and thus close the achievement gap. A program targeted toward lower-income children offers a higher per-child benefit, dollar-per-dollar; however, evidence shows that middle-income children also can achieve substantial benefits for school readiness from participating in pre-k programs, and some of the benefits that underprivileged children may experience come from having children of different backgrounds mix when the programs are not targeted.

Whether a state or district chooses to implement a targeted pre-k program or a universal one depends on the particular needs and problems it wants to address, as well as the availability of resources. But decision makers must consider the following:

  • Different programs will experience a range of net benefits or benefit-cost ratios, depending on the populations they serve and other local conditions.
  • Targeted pre-k programs, universal pre-k programs, and hybrid options (such as those charging sliding-scale fees) all can generate positive returns to participants and school systems alike, but low-quality pre-k programs of all kinds are unlikely to see the positive returns of high-quality programs; the investment must match the desired outcomes.
  • While schools may see some cost savings down the road, they are unlikely to offset the costs of operating their programs; instead, educators and policy makers must view pre-k as a long-term societal investment, with multiple stakeholders outside the school receiving the benefits.

Tips for Parents

How can parents put this information into action?

  • Budget busters. Most parents will take the time to find out how much a program will cost. In addition, parents may want to understand: How does the early childhood learning program spend its money? What sources fund a particular program, and where does the money go? Does it look like the program is well-resourced for your child?
  • Growth plans. Investment also means growth. How does a particular program plan to invest in program growth, especially if it is a two-year program? Even if this is your last child going through a program, knowing the future plans may tell parents a lot about current enthusiasm.
  • Don’t be shy. Asking these questions may feel uncomfortable at first. They don’t have to be. Not only do these inquiries show that you care about your child, but also they show that you care about the program’s long-term viability. You’re there for the long run.

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