Diane Schanzenbach Finds Universal Preschool Provides Gains for Disadvantaged Children

Diane Schanzenbach Finds Universal Preschool Provides Gains for Disadvantaged Children

Diane Schanzenbach

A new study by SESP associate professor Diane Schanzenbach and Elizabeth Cascio of Dartmouth College finds that when states have universal public preschools, low-income children are more likely to enroll in preschool. For low-income children, such programs lead to more quality time with their mothers and higher achievement test scores as late as eighth grade.

For higher-income children, the impact is quite different. When public preschool programs are available, these children are likely to shift from private to public preschools. For this group, there is less impact on number of children enrolled but a significant decrease in childcare expenses. In addition, the researchers found no increase in the children’s test scores.

Universal preschool is a timely topic because of the Preschool for All initiative President Obama proposed, to be funded by federal and state funds. This initiative calls for major increases in the number of four-year-olds enrolled in public preschools and in the quality of these programs nationwide. A large body of research shows the value of early childhood education for disadvantaged children.

To investigate the potential impact of Obama’s proposal, Cascio and Schanzenbach studied universal preschool programs that Georgia and Oklahoma have offered since the 1990s. The researchers draw on data from multiple sources to estimate the impacts of these state programs — which are considered “models” for access and quality — on preschool enrollment as well as family and child outcomes.

Cascio and Schanzenbach see mothers’ education having a striking impact on preschool enrollment. When universal preschool is available, four-year-olds whose mothers have no more than a high school education show an 18 to 20 percent enrollment gain. In contrast, children of more educated mothers show only a 12 to 15 percent gain.

Overall, the researchers conclude that with universal preschool more four-year-olds would be enrolled in preschool. However, if access is free regardless of income, children switching from private to public preschools could lead to “crowding out.”

Because about 40 percent of the participants with more educated mothers would have otherwise enrolled in private preschool, “crowd-out” adds as much as 19 percent in costs to taxpayers. Universal preschool “would result in substantial crowd-out, driving up costs and limiting program efficacy,” the authors say. “Specifying the degree of cost sharing for middle-class families in the Obama plan therefore presents policymakers with an important tradeoff,” the authors say.

Regarding the impact of universal preschool on mothers’ employment, Cascio and Schanzenbach find some evidence of an increase in the likelihood that lower-education mothers become employed. However, the increase is restricted to the first few years of the program. 

The academic gains from universal preschool are greater for disadvantaged children. Lower-income children show modest, sustained increases in math scores by eighth grade, while higher-income children show no positive impacts.

To improve outcomes and obtain the same positive impacts without inducing as much crowd-out, the authors speculate that the proposal could be modified — such as by improving existing Head Start preschool programs for lower-income children. However, with a targeted program such as Head Start might not match the test score gains seen in universal state public programs if “peer effects” are an important factor, the paper suggests.

Diane Schanzenbach is an associate professor in the Human Development and Social Policy program at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. An economist, she is also a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She studies education policy, child health, and food consumption. Her most recent work investigates the impact of school accountability policies and school reform policies on student performance and other outcomes.

Download the entire paper here.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 10/1/13