D.C.’s preschool program, which operates through a lottery system, costs taxpayers $122 million annually, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
When Ivette Basterrechea, a lawyer and consultant who lives in Anacostia, won a space in the lottery for her 3-year-old daughter several years ago, she didn’t hesitate.
“The big motivation was not so much because we thought preschool education was so great in D.C., but we wanted to get out of day care so we wouldn’t have to pay,” she said. “I don’t think I’m alone in that.”
Yet for 4-year-olds, “I don’t know why anyone would not want to send their child to preK,” she said. “It’s not a choice. It’s hugely beneficial.”
The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, is calling for universal access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, with costs shared between the federal and state governments. For infants up to age 3, the center wants an expansion of federal child care subsidies and a doubling of Early Head Start programs.
That plan would initially cost $98.4 billion for preschool, $84.2 billion for child-care subsidies and $11.5 billion for Early Head Start, spread over about 10 years. The programs would cost about $25 billion a year to operate.
Neera Tanden, the center’s president, said investment in early childhood education amounts to “pennies” compared to the rest of the federal budget. She called it crucial to the country’s longterm economic health.
“China and India are investing tremendous amounts in the pre-school years,” she said. “We live in a global competition where people are looking for the best workers. This is about insuring that kids don’t fall behind before they even enter the race.”
Policymakers and education advocates caution that the quality of preschool in the United States varies wildly, creating uneven results.
“The challenge we have is how do we ramp those up in intensity and ramp up support for teachers and for kids in these programs,” said Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “What we don’t need is another level of bureaucracy these programs need to deal with.”