The Case For Expanding Preschool Access To Every American Child

With successful programs that boost preschool education facing significant budget cuts at the end of the month, President Obama laid out an ambitious plan to expand preschool education to all American children during his State of the Union address Tuesday. Programs like Head Start and Early Head Start have increased access to early childhood education among America’s youth, but significant gaps in access remain for children in low- and middle-income families.

A universal access plan could close those gaps while making sure “none of our children start the race of life already behind,” Obama said:

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

Expanded childhood education would have substantial benefits for children who receive it. Chicago’s preschool program generates “$11 of economic benefits over a child’s lifetime for every dollar spent initially on the program,” according to one study, and at-risk youth who receive early childhood education are more likely to go to college and less likely to drop out of school, become teen parents, or commit violent crimes.


The benefits aren’t relegated to the children who receive better education. A 2009 study found that universal programs lead to increases in both human capital and the nation’s gross domestic product, while other studies found that every dollar spent on early childhood education generates roughly $7 in savings. A universal program would save money by reducing societal and economic costs later in the child’s life, while also increasing social and economic mobility for the children who receive it.

The Center for American Progress released a universal preschool plan last week that, at a cost of $98 billion over the next decade, would provide matching federal funds to make state programs stronger.