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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Reducing Poverty through Preschool Interventions
Greg J. Duncan Jens Ludwig Katherine A. Magnuson

Our Proposed Early Childhood Intervention

Our proposed educational intervention builds on these encouraging research findings. It combines what we believe are likely to be the “active ingredients” behind the success of previous interventions, including college- educated teachers, small class sizes, academically oriented curricula, and parent outreach. Because resources are scarce, we propose the lowest-cost combination of these program features that is likely to improve the lifetime outcomes of poor children.

Specifically, we propose that all low-income children in the United States (from families with incomes below 1.5 times the poverty line) be eligible to participate at no cost in two years of intensive, high-quality early childhood education at three and four years of age. Classes would meet for one-half day for the duration of the regular academic year and be led by a college-educated teacher. Class sizes would be small, limited to six students per teacher, with no more than twelve students in a classroom. Teachers would devote the remaining half of their workday to parent outreach efforts, both to involve parents as partners in their children’s learning and to help them access available support and social services.34 In addition, our proposed program would include the same health services as are now incorporated into Head Start.

Instruction would be organized around a new national curriculum that would be developed for the program from previous preschool reading, mathematics, and behavioral interventions that have proven to foster children’s academic and attention skills in developmentally appropriate ways.35 We recognize that the idea of a fairly prescriptive national curriculum will be controversial and not without drawbacks, such as imposing some constraints on the ability of local teachers and schools to tailor instruction to the particular needs of their children. But we are impressed by evidence from programs like Perry Preschool and Abecedarian that rely on prescriptive curricula. Moreover, evidence suggests that the Success for All program for slightly older, elementary school children achieved gains across a wide variety of program settings using the same reading-focused curriculum.36

Participation in our program would not be limited to poor families, although the subsidy given to participating children would decline as family income increased. Families with incomes of 1.5 to two times the poverty threshold would be required to pay one-third of the program cost, while families with incomes two to three times the poverty threshold would pay two-thirds of the program’s costs. Families with incomes equal to more than three times the poverty threshold could participate in the program but would not receive a subsidy from the government. Mixing children from low- and higher-income families would help to mitigate program stigma and may even generate beneficial peer effects.

To support parents’ employment, our proposed program would also offer wraparound child care. The child care component would not require a college-educated teacher or the same very small class sizes as the education component, thereby helping to contain overall program costs. Participation in child care would be voluntary; parents would have the option of participating only in the education program.

Given that our child care component is likely much less important for promoting child development than our proposed early education classes, our subsidy for child care is considerably less generous to lower-income families. Families with incomes up to 1.25 times the poverty line would not be required to contribute anything toward the cost of care, while families with incomes between 1.25 and two times the poverty line would contribute a share of the half-day child care costs ranging from 25 percent to 75 percent, depending on their income (table 1). As with the education component, families with incomes too high to qualify them for a government subsidy would still be eligible to participate.

We remain agnostic about whether the program should be operated by local public schools and overseen by the states (subject to federal requirements for program quality and performance) or instead involve direct grant making between the federal government and local service providers, as with the current Head Start program. The former arrangement would have the advantage of helping public schools align their elementary school curricula with the skills children learn in our proposed program. As with state prekindergartens, however, local public schools might choose to contract with existing providers to deliver the program rather than create new programs within the confines of the public school system. If the program followed the Head Start model of directly funding local service providers, it would be important that the federal government create incentives for local public schools to align their curricula with the new program we propose, perhaps by using existing Title I funding as leverage.

We estimate the annual cost per child for the early childhood education component of our program to be on the order of $8,000 a year. That figure is somewhat higher than the estimated per child expenditures of Head Start (around $7,000 a year), even though the Head Start figure is an average cost of both half-day and full-day programs and ours is half-day only. Our estimated costs are also roughly in line with existing pre-K programs. Michigan’s half-day pre-K program, at $3,300 per child, costs considerably less than our program, but it has a higher teacher-child ratio than we propose (8:1 rather than 6:1) and does not include the health and parent outreach services. New Jersey’s Abbott intervention has a per child cost of $10,000, but it is a full-day program.

We estimate the cost of the half-day wraparound child care component of our proposal to be on the order of $4,000 per child per academic year. The figure is higher than most families now pay for center-based care. David Blau and Janet Currie report that the average family using center-based care pays about $2,000 in 2005 dollars for forty weeks of half-time care.37 The quality of the program we envision is probably higher than the average for center-based child care among families nationwide.

The expected gross cost to the government of our program would be on the order of $30 billion a year. That figure comes from combining the subsidy rates by family income with our best estimates of the rates at which families will sign up to participate in the early childhood and child care components (both shown in table 1), and then multiplying by the total number of children aged three to four in each of these family income categories as estimated from the March 2005 Current Population Survey.

The net cost of the program would be less than $30 billion, because some of the families who sign up for our program will have received other early childhood education or child care subsidies from existing programs, although the exact amount of these offsets is difficult to predict.38 Taking these offsets together, the total amount of new spending by government at any level required to implement our program would be on the order of $20 billion.

It is possible that our assumed participation rates are too high for low-income children who are already enrolled in either Head Start or state pre-K programs. One could argue that our proposed pre-K program ought to replace Head Start, since its likely impacts are larger. But it might make sense to preserve the Head Start program at least for the medium term, so as to add to the choices available to low-income families. In this case, the total offsets would be lower than we project, but the total gross cost of our proposed program would be lower as well.