Unintended Consequences of Universal Pre-K

By Eunice Roh

In recent years, universal access to preschool has been heralded as a promising solution to closing the achievement gap between students from low- and high-income households. High-quality preschool programs promise to close the 30 million words gap between low- and high-income students, and help develop the socio-emotional needs (in particular, executive function) of low-income students. Furthermore, universal access to early childhood education presents the possibility of a wide range of long-term academic and social benefits to students. Several small-scale studies show that at-risk children who receive a high-quality early childhood education are less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, become a teen parent, or be arrested for a violent crime. They are also more likely to go on to college, earn higher salaries, and score higher on cognitive assessments. The benefits to the most vulnerable and underserved students suggest that society could save $7 for every $1 invested in early childhood education.

In light of these findings, preschool for all has become a safe, bipartisan issue that focuses on cost-effective early intervention, leading to long-term societal benefits. Such political momentum behind universal pre-K has led to expansion of pre-K programs all across the country—from 3-K for All in New York City to the universal pre-K program in Oklahoma. All of these programs differ slightly from one another, but a central tenet in many of these programs is increasing government provision of pre-K in public schools as part of an effort to improve the quality and availability of pre-K for all families.

However, a pre-K expansion program that is dependent on a single-delivery model, focusing primarily on government provision of pre-K in public schools, creates unintended consequences to the provision of childcare and pre-K for all families with children under five.

Many private childcare providers depend on older children—four year olds—to be financially viable. Because infants require more individualized attention and increase staffing demands, most private childcare providers do not profit from infant care. Four year olds, on the other hand, require less staff, making it a much more lucrative venture. Consequently, in many programs, the care of pre-K aged children often subsidizes the care of infants. Even then, most private childcare providers have very narrow profit margins, making these providers highly vulnerable to any disruptions in the market.

Therefore, in a mixed market like childcare, a greater provision of public pre-K harms the already financially-precarious private providers. The pre-K aged children that are subsidizing the care of infants leave private providers, leaving private providers only with the most expensive and labor-intensive infants. Additionally, childcare centers now have to compete in a more competitive market for teachers. Public schools can generally offer greater salaries and benefits than private providers can, making it harder for private providers to retain their teachers.

These unintended consequences of expanding pre-K primarily in public schools not only hurt private childcare providers, but ultimately harm the families that universal pre-K hopes to serve. When private providers can no longer sustain themselves financially, they close, further limiting the quality of options that families can afford. Additionally, when infant care can no longer be subsidized by care of pre-K aged children, many private providers opt to no longer offer infant care. For families with infants and toddlers, this exacerbates the already difficult task of finding affordable, high-quality childcare. Moreover, when private providers struggle to retain high quality teachers due to budgetary reasons, children and families who depend on private childcare suffer as a result. Alternatively, some families may prefer to send their children to a private provider over a school-based program—by using a single delivery model, the state limits parents’ choices of where they can send their child for the early years.

A truly comprehensive pre-K expansion plan would build on the already existing early learning systems to provide more families with high-quality options. States, such as New Jersey, Vermont, and Florida, have shown that a mixed delivery model that both expands pre-K programming in public schools and also increases subsidies to private providers can be successful in creating a system of high-quality childcare for all families. Such a program would expand overall pre-K access, save public funds by using existing early learning structures and facilities, and give families more choice in selecting providers.

Eunice Roh is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.