California Democratic lawmakers proposed a universal preschool program on Tuesday, the San Jose Mercury News reports.
It would expand the state’s current “transition kindergarten” program for children who just miss the cutoff date for starting kindergarten to all four-year-olds. It would also be voluntary, just as kindergarten is in California. It would cost an estimated $1 billion over the five-year phase-in period.
Supporters of the plan argue that the upfront cost would be offset by savings down the road. And the research indicates they are likely right. For each dollar spent on a high-quality program, the return has been found to be $7 or even $11. It can also increase human capital and economic growth, another reason it can end up paying for itself. The students also see enormous benefits later in life, making them more likely to stay in school and go to college and reducing societal and economic costs.
That body of evidence has inspired President Obama to put forward a plan to bring universal preschool access to the whole country, and a bipartisan group of Congressmen introduced a bill following up on his idea in November.
The idea has also gotten support from both red and blue states, with many working on their own universal programs while they await federal action: Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Oklahoma, and West Virginia are all interested. Lawmakers in Indiana and South Carolina have also introduced similar legislation, while New York’s governor has indicated he wants to enact a universal program.
There’s lots of work to be done, as the United States falls far behind its peers in this arena. It ranks at number 21 globally on the percentage of GDP spent on preschool, and states are now spending the lowest amount per Pre-K student in a decade. Enrollment is also low, with the country ranking at number 26 for four-year-olds in programs and number 24 for three-year-olds.