On Wednesday, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law that will give every three- and four-year-old in the state access to at least 10 hours a week of publicly funded preschool for 35 weeks a year by 2015.
Preschool programs can come from a variety of approved programs that include public schools, private programs, and Head Start. Over 80 percent of its school districts already offer some preschool themselves or through a partnership with private providers. The state ranked fourth in the country last school year for offering access to early childhood education. The new law also allows parents to put their children in any program, not just ones in their towns.
The bill will likely require an extra $10 million from the state’s education fund by 2021, but backers say it will save more in the long term given the reduced costs of special education and incarceration.
They’re likely right, as a variety of research has found that high-quality preschool is cost effective in the long run. Chicago’s program has been found to increase children’s earnings later in life and reduce their chances of incarceration, which means it generates $11 for every dollar spent on it. Other studies have found that universal programs yield $7 in savings for every dollar that goes in. They can boost human capital, children’s economic mobility, and overall economic output.
Beyond the economic benefits, high-quality programs also have a significant academic impact for the children who attend. Students in Georgia’s universal Pre-K program have significantly better outcomes in language, math, and general skills. Oklahoma’s universal program improves cognitive, academic, and emotional skills.
Given these benefits, both red and blue states have created universal preschool programs. A handful of others — California, Indiana, Maine, New York, and South Carolina — are working on similar plans. President Obama has pushed for a national universal preschool program.
But while some states are moving forward, in general things don’t look great for the country’s preschoolers. The number of children enrolled in Pre-K programs dropped in the 2012-2013 school year for the first time since tracking began in 2002. Just 4 percent of three-year-olds and 28 percent of four-year-olds were enrolled. Many states also aren’t meeting benchmarks for quality in their programs. The country ranks at number 21 among developed peers for the share of GDP spent on early childhood education and 24th and 26th for three-year-old and four-year-old enrollment rates, respectively.