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State Preschool and Programs for Infants and Toddlers Under the Microscope

When it comes to early-childhood education, should we step on the gas or tap the brakes? Two Washington-area think tanks on the opposite end of the political spectrume released reports Oct. 15 that, unsurprisingly, call for different approaches to programs for young children.

David J. Armor, a professor emeritus at George Mason University, wrote an analysis for the  libertarian Cato Institute, "The Evidence on Universal Preschool," that says such evidence is too thin to merit further government-backed expansions. 

In contrast, analysts at the progressive Center for America Progress argued in favor of increased funding for programs aimed at very young children in "Aligning and Investing in Infants and Toddler Programs." The current programs are fractured, and are only serving a small percentage of the children who need assistance, the report says. 

Cato's View

In his paper, Armor revisits some of the most well-known early-childhood programs, such as the Ypsilanti, Mich.-based Perry Preschool, which has followed the outcomes of its students well into their adulthood. He also examines more current research, such as an ongoing project out of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., that is evaluating the results of universal prekindergarten in that state

The Perry Preschool study cannot be generalized to today's state-run universal preschool programs, Armor contends. And he notes that investigations of programs such as the federal Head Start program and the state-funded efforts in Tennessee have shown that the positive effects for children dissipate by the time children reach 3rd grade. From the report: 

Before considering expanding preschool offerings—especially making it universal—policymakers need to seek more randomized trials that track control and treatment groups over several years, and they should only attempt to replicate programs that have statistically significant, lasting effects, which can be achieved at scale and an affordable price.

The original logic of helping disadvantaged children catch up may still be valid, because Head Start-type programs do show modest benefits during the preschool year. However, the proposal to expand preschool to everyone defeats the purpose of closing achievement gaps by giving disadvantaged children a "head start."

Providing More Funding for Infants and Toddlers

The report from the Center for American Progress takes a step back from preschool, arguing on behalf of an increased, and more coherent, investment for children younger than 4. Children in this age group experience poverty at the highest rate of any age group. For the first time, there are also more Hispanic, Black and Asian children in this group than non-Hispanic white children. 

These are the children who could be most helped by social-safety programs, but the current patchwork system does not serve them well, the paper argues. For example, federal funding for young children is provided by Early Head Start, the Child Care Development Block Grant, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (for children with developmental disabilities) or through the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, among other funding sources. 

In addition to increased funding, the report also calls for a single entry point for children so that families can easily access all the supports they need. From the report: 

Too many of these youngest Americans live in families that are still struggling to recover from the recession, which means important resources that are key to development are missing or severely lacking. Moreover, it is vital for policymakers to recognize that investing in infants and toddlers is not only an investment in these children and their outcomes, but also an investment in a brighter future for the country as a whole.

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