Endow Universal Pre-K

UPKNYCHomePageSlideCourtesy of UPKNYC

The Austin City Council is considering spending an unexpected $14 million surplus in a so-called ‘midyear budget adjustment’. This is similar to their allocation of $10 million for affordable housing last year.  This time, if we are going to spend it, it should be invested in creating a universal pre-K endowment.

I’m not a fan of this process.  It tends to favor idiosyncratic, short-term topics du jour.   If the money is not spent it goes to our fund balance, which is a boring name for what we usually call a ‘rainy day fund’ (RDF) at the state level.

The nice thing about a RDF is that every Austinite benefits. It improves our bond rating, lowering the cost of capital projects that pay for infrastructure that is universally accessible (and fairly non-rival, in economic terms). Additionally, a RDF has counter-cyclical benefits (don’t tell the majority in the Texas legislature they embrace Keynes!). In the event of a downturn we all benefit from draw-downs on the fund to support the citywide budget.

Unlike the RDF, the Council’s wishlist approach focuses on projects with narrower constituencies. And of course, once the money is spent, we lose the counter-cyclical advantages of keeping cash reserves around.

Assuming Council wants to find something to do with the money, I’d prefer they spend it on something with impeccable public value credentials, that is of benefit to the entire Austin community, and that preserves the counter-cyclical benefit of a RDF.

My proposal is that Council allocates the $14 million to start a universal Pre-K (UPK) endowment.

Quality pre-kindergarten programs have thorough social impact credentials.  In many ways, UPK should serve as a ‘hurdle rate’ for Austin discussions of public spending in areas such as tax expenditures (homestead exemptions), corporate subsidies, expansion of existing programs (public safety spending growth).

Assuming a policy of capital preservation and a modestly-risky investment strategy, the endowment would generate around 3% in returns for spending or $400,000 per year. That should be enough to fund supporting further development of a plan and current local efforts toward quality UPK And it can immediately start to fund some additional slots. Eventually, it should solely fund slots.

As for the allocation of the slots, it would be most politically sustainable if there was a lottery open to any child, with some advantage in the lottery for kids from verified low-income backgrounds. In other words, even wealthy and middle-class kids get a digital ticket to the lottery computation, but low-income kids get additional tickets.  This ensures that the lottery is both progressive and has a diverse socio-economic constituency.

Finally, because this proposal creates an endowment instead of expending all of the surplus, some of the counter-cyclical advantages can be retained. In the event of a crisis, the endowment can be liquidated.

Many leading urban centers are developing UPK initiatives. For example, New York City’s new mayor is prioritizing a big picture UPK initiative funded through a progressive tax on wealthy residents.  Austin has different politics and tools than NYC, obviously. We need to take advantage of any opportunity presented to move towards UPK.  This surplus might just be one of them.

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13 Responses to Endow Universal Pre-K

  1. Brennan Griffin says:

    I agree that access high quality pre-K is a very good public policy, but I’m a little bit more optimistic than you, I think, on the political viability of targeting to low-income households in Austin. Targeting it tightly to low-income gets the kids most at risk, and might keep the program small enough to keep quality up. Many of the studies show weak returns (although not non-existent) to Head Start, for instance, partly because quality of Head Start programs can vary wildly. I have no information about Head Start in Austin, but generally its easier to maintain a high quality program at smaller scales.

    Mostly, I’m just wondering where the money would come from for a more extended pre-K here. San Antonio increased the sales tax by 0.125% to fund expanded pre-K. This is estimated to generate $31 million/yr to serve 2,000 additional 4 year olds per year, and even there I’m not sure its reaching all kids at 185% of the poverty line (link here: http://www.sanantonio.gov/Pre-K4SanAntonio/Facts.aspx). $400,000/yr is pretty small potatoes for a program like this, and unless there are other pots of funding on the table, it seems like targeting to where it would do the most good is in order. Now using $400,000 return on endowment for planning purposes towards one of the options, I would fully support, although I would want to make sure its not duplicative of what United Way ATX has been doing on this: http://www.unitedwayaustin.org/strategic-programs/success-by-6/. The 1 yr update at the link has some interesting info that I haven’t had time to really go through. Given the number of asterisks in the one year update, it could very well be that they need money just to figure out where we’re at and help define priorities of where to go next.

    I was going to mention nurse home-visits to low-income families as another very promising early childhood intervention, but it turns out that Travis County has several million from a federal grant for this already, and the feds have appropriated significant money for this through this year, although I’m sure there will be fights over it in the next budget cycle.

    • peri says:

      So, wonky one, I read the second link provided there, and don’t see any evidence that all children benefit from being in the custody of the state at age 3 and four, only a study following positive outcomes for a group of low-income children. Is it the pre-school education that’s key, or is it the getting certain children away from their parents? The first link led to a fight between a couple of academics completely at odds in their views on whether “wealthy and middle-class kids” benefit from pre-school. Given that uncertainty, why devote any $ to “lottery tickets” for those kids? As a conservative, I am obviously going to be appalled at the idea of extending the public school system into the early years, and I lament the death of childhood, for a child of any socioeconomic status, but I fully expect it to happen and wouldn’t dream of protesting. I find I am resistant, though, to the idea of my tax dollars paying for others to disguise their motives.

      • timbartik says:

        As the author of the blog post at the first link, this comment by “peri” confirms my argument in that post, namely that when people see a debate, they conclude: “there’s uncertainty!”, regardless of the strength of the arguments on each side and regardless of which side represents what the majority of researchers think.

        To reiterate the point made in my blog post: most researchers believe that pre-K works, and the evidence is growing that it works for both low-income and middle-class kids, based on evidence from Tulsa, Boston, and more recently from Georgia. The fact that one researcher happens to disagree does not mean that the evidence is “uncertain”.

  2. peri says:

    I appreciate the implication that the evidence for the benefits of full-day preschool is as overwhelming and settled as that for climate change, and only cranks would think otherwise. Well done! You must have attended an excellent nursery school.
    And yet — two seconds’ googling doesn’t yield cranks, but … the Brookings Institute! Most people would judge it to be quite centrist, yes? And I see that it has very lately questioned the value of pre-school education. Of course, it seems to be still fixated on Head Start. But am I to understand that Head Start is now completely discredited; and, conveniently, the long-term data collected regarding its effectiveness with it, replaced by kindergarten test scores from Tulsa circa 2006? A casual observer might wonder, what precisely was so terrible about Head Start, since presumably the people who worked for it were kind and caring, as people drawn to working with children generally are; and relatedly, how much variety can there be in teaching or supervising 3-and-four-year-olds? One might even suspect that chasing fads in education means you need never answer the ultimate question of what the limits of education are.

    • timbartik says:

      I didn’t say that the evidence on preschool effectiveness is as settled as that for climate change — that is your creation of a straw man.

      Rather, I said that Whitehurst’s perspective is distinctly a minority one among researchers on early childhood education, and I provided some links in my blog post to demonstrate that proposition. Whether his position is true or not has nothing to do with who he is affiliated with, which is an irrelevant argument to the merits of the case.

      No, I don’t think the situation is that Head Start is discredited. I do think that the Head Start randomized experiment provides some evidence that as of 2002-2003, which is when the experimental children participated in Head Start, Head Start probably did not offer great advantages compared to some of the other alternatives availalbe then to low-income children, such as state pre-K programs. There is evidence from long-term studies of Head Start that in the past, Head Start did offer services that had long-run benefits for participating children compared to the alternative services available at that time.

  3. peri says:

    Given how absolutely settled the issue is, I fear you are losing the media war if you haven’t even got the Washington Post on your side. Some of your colleagues seem to be out there suggesting that preschool’s benefits have less to do with what the public may traditionally conceive of as learning, and more to do with inculcating self-control and coping mechanisms! You might want to put a lid on that, as some people may feel they are doing with fine with that sort of thing at home.
    And no matter where I turn, even the staunchest advocates for early, all-day preschool feel that none of it – public, private – is yet of very “high quality.” You’ll get your universal, government-funded early education eventually, and I expect you’ll have employment the rest of your life searching for that elusive “high quality.”

  4. mdahmus says:

    Given the uncertainty around pre-K, and I agree with peri that it IS uncertain, why not reframe this as childcare assistance to allow lower-income parents to work?

    • timbartik says:

      There are studies showing pre-K works in Tulsa, Boston, Kalamazoo, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Michigan, South Carolina, Arkansas, and New Mexico. There is a long-term randomized control trial to age 40, Perry Preschool, which shows significant effects on increasing earnings and reducing crime at age 40. There is a major study in Chicago that shows significant earnings effects and anti-crime effects of the Chicago Child-Parent Center preschool program. There are major studies showing long-term effects of Head Start on educational attainment. The only rigorous studies that offer evidence against pre-K are the Head Start randomized control trial, and a study in Tennessee. Even if those studies are perfectly valid, all that they would show is that Tennessee may not have the best pre-K program, and that Head Start as of 2002-03 may not have been as effective as other preschool options. (In the Head Start randomized control trial, only 80% of the treatment group actually enrolled in Head Start, and 50% of the control group enrolled in some other preschool program, including state pre-k programs that may have been better than Head Start.) It seems to me that the bulk of evidence shows that pre-K works.

      For a recent meta-analysis of the evidence by the Washington Institute for Public Policy, done for the state of Washington legislature, see

      Click to access Wsipp_Early-Childhood-Education-for-Low-Income-Students-A-Review-of-the-Evidence-and-Benefit-Cost-Analysis_Full-Report.pdf

      Their summary conclusion is as follows:

      “WSIPP analyzed how various approaches to early childhood education (ECE) for low-income children impact student outcomes and whether benefits exceed costs. We examined three types of programs: state and district pre-kindergarten, the federal Head Start program, and “model” programs.”

      “To investigate, we conducted a systematic review of research by collecting all studies we could find on the topic. We screened for scientific rigor and only analyzed studies with strong research methods.”

      “We identified 49 credible evaluations of whether the three types of ECE for low-income children have a cause-and-effect relationship with student outcomes. The studies in our review measured academic as well as social and emotional development outcomes; a few studies also measured longer term outcomes including crime and teen births.”

      “Our bottom-line findings. Our analysis shows that ECE for low-income children can improve outcomes. In scaled-up state, district, and federal programs, the long-term benefits have a relatively high probability of outweighing program costs. We find that the typical state program outperforms the federal Head Start program, but both have favorable results.”

      As for child care, the studies suggest that one year of pre-K at age 4 won’t do much for the labor supply of parents. That’s simply not a big enough intervention to make it easier to work or attend school.

      If you want major child care effects on parents’ labor supply, then you need to go to something like the Abecedarian/Educare program, which offers full-time full-year free child care and pre-K, birth to age 5. That would have a major effect on parents’ earnings, both due to immediate effects on increasing work, and long-run effects via allowing parents to get more education and more job experience. Studies suggest that the parental earnings effects alone of this program would exceed costs.

      However, these costs are major. Educare costs $18,000 per year per kid for 5 years. $90,000 per kid. If this was extended to all low-income children, the national cost is about $70 billion annually.

      In contrast, full-day UNIVERSAL pre-K at age 4 only, which would go not only to poor children, but to working class and middle class families, would only cost $25 billion annually. To put this in perspective, this is about 4% of what we currently spend on K-12 education.

      I personally think that both of these programs are good investments that would have future economic benefits significantly exceeding program costs. The overall boost to the American economy would exceed what taxpayers would pay, and in the long-term, reasonable projections indicate that the programs would eventually have fiscal benefits exceeding costs, meaning they are self-financing in the long-term.

      But I think that convincing voters to spend $70 billion a year for a program that only directly benefits the lowest income one-fourth of America’s children is a very tough sell .

  5. peri says:

    Last I checked Americans are quite accustomed to paying for a number of programs that only directly benefit the lowest income quarter. (Most) small children are cuter than they’ll ever be again, so I’m not sure why this should be a particularly tough sell. I will venture a guess that mdahmus and I share no common cause, politically; yet the harder sell to both of us is that limited public funds should go to those with private means of paying for the advantages of preschool – be they cognitive or behavioral, or simply being for the benefit of mom.
    I have spent a fair amount of time in kindergarten classrooms, aside from my own year of half-day kindergarten at six. One thing I noticed with full-day kindergarten – children up to two years older than the ones you’d enroll in a full-day pre-K – was how exhausted they were by the end of the day. How hard it was to stay on the enriching schedule, how antsy they became. It didn’t matter that they were “easy” kids, for the most part. You could stick to the regimen, somewhat painfully, for a few hours, but after lunch, they just needed to chillax. But they couldn’t, really. They couldn’t be left to their own devices for long: that wouldn’t have been high-quality. There were targets to hit. This was at what in Texas is known as an “exemplary” school. Those that headed to the cafeteria for after-school care when the others went home at three wore the expressions of condemned men.

    And all the sediment still refuses to settle! A recent issue of the Public Interest (or National Affairs as it is now styled) came to very different conclusions as to the significance of the purported “low quality” of the Head Start program:

    “This is why the Bernardy study is so valuable. It revealed no significant relationship between Head Start program quality and the major cognitive and social outcomes. And the long-term effects of participating in Head Start programs were not statistically different from not going to preschool at all.” (http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-dubious-promise-of-universal-preschool)

    The authors even give the impression that the later studies – the disappointing Tennessee one excepted — were themselves of rather “low quality” as compared to the Head Start Impact Study:

    “Some of the better-known “high-quality” programs created and evaluated within the last ten years include the Abbot program in New Jersey, the Boston preschool program, a preschool program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a Tennessee preschool program. Evaluators of the first three programs — none of which used the rigorous randomized designs used in the HSIS — claim very large cognitive effects, some nearly ten times those of the typical Head Start program. These stronger effects are attributed to the quality of the program offerings, namely, a stronger curriculum and fully certified instructional staff with bachelor’s degrees. But the Tennessee preschool evaluation, which had a randomized design, failed to find significant positive effects through first grade.”

    My unanswered question above, about how much pedagogy is really involved in teaching very small children, seems also to concern them:

    “The argument that the large effects noted in New Jersey, Boston, and Tulsa are due to better curriculum and more qualified instructional staff — particularly more teachers with bachelor’s degrees — is especially puzzling. Research has shown that both curriculum quality and teacher education have very low correlations with cognitive and social-emotional outcomes in preschool programs. This was demonstrated both in Bernardy’s study using the national sample of Head Start programs and in a 2007 study by a team led by Diane Early of the University of North Carolina, which used a diverse national sample of preschool programs including Head Start. The lack of correlation makes sense when one considers that the children in these preschool programs are only three or four years old. Teaching basic vocabulary or numeracy skills to this age group does not require years of formal study or a complex curriculum, otherwise untrained middle-class parents would not be such good teachers for their young children.”

    I’ve been reading a little about the Perry Project and the Abecedarian Project. The latter ((98% of the babies African-American, wikipedia says) strikes me as breathtakingly offensive: very simply, let us take your children out of your care soon after birth, so that we can try to make them more like us, less like you. Like clockwork oranges.
    Yet there was an honesty about what they were up to, I guess.
    Speaking of conditioning, women have been told since about the year of my birth that there is one kind of work that’s beneath them: rearing their own children. But rearing other people’s children – that’s somehow more meaningful? Oh, I expect there’s a study showing just that …

  6. timbartik says:

    On Armor and Sousa, I commented on this article in some detail on my blog in the past:


    Commenter peri’s belief that the American public is very supportive of programs for the poor is I think, simply wrong. On the whole, it seems that support is far stronger for programs such as Social Security, which do some redistribution within universal eligibility, than for more narrow income-targeted programs such as welfare.

    As for only paying for preschool for families that can’t afford it, this would in fact probably be for a majority of all children. 47% of all American children are in families with income below 200% of the poverty line. One school year of high-quality full-day pre-K at age 4 costs approximately $10,000. I suspect that this is difficult for all families below 200% of the poverty line to afford, and also difficult for many of those who are somewhat above that cut-off.

    Equating child care with Clockwork Orange is a vast exaggeration. And if commenter peri favors low-income women taking care of their own children, then I would suggest that peri should be supportive of more generous paid parental leave and more generous welfare programs that would augment the income of low-income parents with young children.

    In other words, what’s your alternative to addressing the unequal economic opportunities facing many lower-income and working-class children, other than early childhood education? (If you don’t agree that there is a major problem with the inequity of economic opportunities for children based on economic class, then I’m not sure there is any basis for constructive dialogue here, so for a moment I’ll assume you are in agreement on this point. ) One intellectually defensible alternative would be to argue for much larger income transfers to the poor. One of the interesting research findings on effects of early childhood experiences on adult outcomes is that children’s adult outcomes such as earnings and educational attainment are more strongly related to family income when they were children age 5 or less than to family income at later childhood ages. There’s evidence that increasing income transfers to families with young children would significantly improve adult outcomes for these children. That would be an alternative to early childhood education worth discussing, although my personal view is that both helping families with young children through cash, and through early childhood programs, would be desirable policies that would complement each other.

    I discuss the research on how income during early childhood affects adult outcomes in this post:


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  9. Teresa Griffin says:

    The Austin Independent School District provides a full-day prekindergarten program for all children who turn four on or before September 1st of the current school year. Students must also qualify by being either: Limited-English proficient (LEP); or Educationally disadvantaged; or Child of active military parent; or Homeless. Therefore, Universal pre-K would give a subsidy to higher-income families who do not qualify for the current program.
    There might be other more progressive ways to invest the available funds.

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