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Preschool Enrollment Questioned by New Brookings Research Project

Preschool participation among 4-year-olds nationwide is higher than typically thought, and so universal preschool expansion efforts are misguided, according to a new Brookings Institution analysis.

Brookings Institute researchers Grover "Russ" Whitehurst and Ellie Klein found wide variations in the definition of preschool and the age and extent of children attending them, which may lead to undercounts of participation.The miscounts are leading to an unnecessary  focus on universal preschool, they argue. 

For example, many preschool-participation estimates do not separate children of different ages into different cohorts, but early childhood education proposals like the Obama administration's proposed $120 billion Preschool for All program focus on 4-year-olds. 

"To lump together 3- and 4-year-olds is to lump together children who are different enough developmentally that they need different kinds of programs," Whitehurst said in an interview.

Based on data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, the report finds 69 percent of 4-year-olds regularly attended a preschool program. Half of 4-year-olds in the poorest 20 percent of families attended preschool in the year before they started kindergarten, compared with more than 80 percent of their peers from the wealthies 20 percent of families. Of all races, Hispanic students had the lowest preschool enrollment at age 4, less than 60 percent. That was 18 percentage points lower than white students' preschool participation.

But even parents in the highest 20 percent of income, "who presumably would be able to have the preschool options they want," he said, reported about half the rate of preschool enrollment for children aged 3 compared to 4. As a result, the analysis suggests the number of middle and upper-income families who actually need additional preschool spaces has been overstated, pulling funding that could go to poorer families.

The findings showed there are disparities in preschool enrollment between children from low-income families and children from more affluent families. To address that, Whitehurst argues for providing parents with childcare vouchers on a sliding scale, with low-income students getting larger or full subsidies, rather than funding universal preschools initiatives. a particular program. It's an idea he has put forward more than once, though rising interest in early childhood education may give it more traction this time. 

However, Whitehurst noted that the study did not look at geographic differences in access to preschool. Other studies have found large gaps in the total number of preschools available in rural areas, even for families who aren't in poverty.

Evidence Speaks Project Launched

The analysis is the first for Evidence Speaks, Whitehurst's new think tank project within Brookings. (He was replaced as head of the Brown Center on Education Policy earlier this year, but remained with the group.)

Thumbnail image for Grover-Whitehurst-mug.jpgWith 10 contributing researchers to start, Whitehurst said the project intends to produce weekly analysis of and original research on current education topics. It will focus on reaching out to researchers with ongoing studies in a given topic to write on their own findings.

"We're opening up the somewhat cloistered academy and encouraging researchers to translate their work directly for practice and policy," Whitehurst said.

Photo: Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst will head the Brookings Institution's new research project.

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