The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Universal preschool boosts presence of D.C. moms in the workforce, study finds

Amanda Alexander, interim chancellor for public schools in D.C., right, visits a pre-K classroom at Wheatley Education Campus in May. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Yolanda Corbett knows she would have to remain at home with her youngest child if he was not enrolled in preschool. She would lose her job as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit and would have to scramble in the evenings to find friends and relatives to watch her three children while she worked a night shift in retail. Full-priced day care, which can cost thousands of dollars a month, is not an option.

But the District’s public preschool program has enabled Corbett and thousands of other mothers with young children to enter the workforce, according to a study showing the nearly decade-old universal preschool initiative has benefited more than just the city’s youngest residents. A decade ago, Corbett remained at home with her oldest son during his toddler years. She knows the loss of income and structure for a child can be devastating.

Since 2009, the District’s traditional public and charter schools have offered tuition-free schooling for 3- and 4-year-olds in the hopes children from all backgrounds will start kindergarten on a more equal footing. Enrollment is not mandatory, but nearly 80 percent of young D.C. children attend public preschool.

“It would be quite difficult to hold down employment and take care of him at the same time,” said Corbett, who lives in Southeast Washington. “I would be a stay-at-home mom; it would be really difficult.”

The arrival of universal preschool boosted by 10 percent the presence of D.C. mothers of young children who are in the workforce, according to the study from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that pushes for universal pre-K throughout the country. District mothers with young children are now just as likely to work as mothers with children in elementary school, the study found.

Participating in the workforce, however, does not necessarily mean women have full-time jobs. Despite the increase of mothers in the workforce, the program has not reduced childhood poverty: The percentage of D.C. children living in poverty remained at 26 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to Kids Count, an organization that tracks data about American children.

“We are seeing that choices have opened, the opportunities have opened up, but it may not always turn into consistent or well-paying employment,” said Rasheed Malik, the author of the Center for American Progress study. “They’re feeling that they can work.”

Child-care costs in the District are among the highest in the nation, with private early-childhood education costing more than $23,000 per child, according to Child Care Aware of America, an early-childhood education advocacy organization. That makes day care too expensive for women who would be working low-wage jobs, especially if they have more than one child. The District spent about $222 million on public preschool in 2017, or about $17,000 per child.

Since the District started offering tuition-free preschool, the city has experienced an influx of white and affluent families. Malik’s study found that in the years since the District started offering universal preschool, the presence of women with children younger than 5 in the workforce jumped from 65 percent to more than 76 percent, with most of that growth attributed to the availability of universal preschool. The increase was most significant among low-income and single mothers: The rate jumped 13.3 percent among unmarried women and 15.2 percent among women living in poverty.

There was no change among middle-income women, which the study attributes to parents in those families already working at high rates before the introduction of universal pre-K.

Malik used data from the Census Bureau to compare maternal workforce trends between the eight years before the city offered free preschool and the eight years after its establishment. He compared his findings with maternal workforce trends in cities that do not have universal pre-K.

Without universal pre-K, the study determined the maternal workforce would have increased by 2 percent, which is consistent with national growth.

Ashleigh Taylor, the mother of a 4-year-old in public preschool, said she would work even if she had to pay for private day care, but it would strain her finances. Taylor, who lives in Southeast, owns a hair salon and said she would work longer hours if she had to pay for child care, which would mean spending less time with her daughter. She also lauded the academic benefits of preschool for her daughter, convinced she is learning more in her dual language preschool than she would in day care.

“It would have put a pause on the time that I would have spent with her, because I would have had to work longer hours,” Taylor said. “I appreciate D.C. offering this so that my child gets a head start on her education career and she is just not thrust into the scene at 5.”