Nearly half of all 4-year-olds and about 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.
The 2008 recession slowed or halted growth of programs but in recent months, lawmakers in several states are talking about how to expand access to preschool. In New Mexico, legislators are debating whether the state should add a guarantee of preschool to its state constitution.
Still, 10 states do not fund preschool of any kind. Several, including Indiana, do not compel children to attend kindergarten, so some children first enroll in school in first grade at ages 6 or 7.
The Obama administration has not yet released its estimate of how much its early childhood education plan will cost; officials said that information will be included in the president’s next budget.
The president is proposing that federal-state partnerships pay for preschool expansion, and competitive federal grants pay for an expansion of Early Head Start and other child-care programs that serve infants and toddlers. Federal funding would be given to programs that adhere to specific quality standards, with qualified teachers, state-determined academic standards and assessment systems.
Critics of an expanded government role in preschool say the country has plenty of experience with federal preschool education — the Head Start program — and the results are lackluster.
“Overall, there is very little evidence of lasting benefits from Head Start,” said Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “We’ve had Head Start for 50 years, and we still have an achievement gap. On the whole, the program doesn’t seem to have accomplished what it set out to accomplish.”
Head Start, created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, is designed for 3- to 5-year-old children from low-income families. Head Start services vary by location, but they include medical care, meals, social services and education.
Obama has said he is not proposing to expand Head Start. Instead, he wants to offer incentives to states to create quality preschool programs initially for poor children — those from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, that would be $47,100 and below, and for a single parent with two children, that would be $39,060 and below.