Educators see high-quality early childhood education as especially important to help close the achievement gap, which has been demonstrated to exist among children as young as 3 years old, and often reflects differences in socio-economic status.
By age 3, children of white-collar parents have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, while children in working-class families know 749 words and children whose families are on welfare know 525 words, according to an oft-cited 2003 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.
Poor children who attend quality preschool programs are less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, more likely to be employed and earn higher incomes, and less likely to receive public benefits as adults, when compared to at-risk children who do not attend preschool, several studies have shown.
“The way you measure the benefits are not necessarily in grades or better test scores, but really those kids seem to do better as adults,” said Tracy King, a pediatrician who teaches at Johns Hopkins University Medical School.
Early education for low-income children is estimated to generate $4 to $11 in benefits for every dollar spent on the program, according to a cost-benefit analysis funded by the National Institutes of Health. Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, says the return on investment for preK is stronger than the stock market’s average performance since World War II.
The potential benefits of preschool has led nine states and the District to fund free preschool for all 4-year-olds, growing from just three states a decade ago. The District also offers free preschool for 3-year-olds.
The percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs doubled from 2000 to 2010, while the percentage of 3-year-olds increased slightly. The recession slowed or halted growth of programs in many states.
Nearly half of all 4-year-olds and 20 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded or federally funded preschool programs in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Those state-funded programs cost taxpayers about $5.5 billion, an average of about $5,000 per child.
Including private preschool enrollment, up to 75 percent of all 4-year-olds and 50 percent of 3-year-olds nationwide were in classrooms during the 2010-2011 school year, the institute estimates.