Why Hillary Clinton's New Campaign Issue Matters to Millions of Kids

Her push to fund universal preschool would ensure America's ability to better compete with its global peers.

(Photo: Kinzie Riehm/Getty Images)

Jun 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton made headlines with the first major policy announcement of her 2016 presidential campaign: “high-quality” preschool programs for all children within a decade, which would help young kids get ready for elementary school and catch up with their global peers.

“I will work with states and communities across America to make sure that in the next 10 years every four year old in America has access to high-quality preschool,” Clinton said. Building on President Barack Obama’s Preschool for All initiative, Clinton would pump more money into states that expand their early-education programs to include children whose families meet income requirements—a proposal even Republicans might find it hard to argue with.

Fans of early-education programs in place in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., say studies confirm exposing kids to educational programs that teach academic concepts, instead of play-only day care, boosts school readiness and lowers school-dropout rates. The programs also have sustained effects across a student’s primary and secondary education. At the same time, countries like Norway and Denmark, whose students top the global list of educational achievement, have near-100 percent enrollment in prekindergarten programs.

Skeptics say a closer look at the data shows prekindergarten programs in places like Massachusetts and Oklahoma have only been marginally successful. They argue that their studies show that kids in prekindergarten classes didn’t do much better than kids who went to day care, and researchers who say differently are manipulating the data they use to back it up.

"The reality is there isn’t good research basis to say that pre-k is good," Neal McCluskey, an education specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute, told The Atlantic last year.

"Preschool has been oversold,” said McCluskey, associate director of Cato’s Center on Educational Freedom, adding that proponents’ data is faulty. “People too often speak as if it’s a certainty that preschool has strong, lasting benefits."

But it’s hard to argue with the rest of the world’s education leaders.

Most Western European nations have made major publicly funded investments in early childhood education, with enrollment rates at 85 percent or better, and countries like France, Belgium, and Denmark have rates approaching 95 percent, according to a white paper from Early Education for All, an advocacy group. In Sweden, a world leader in primary and secondary education achievement scores, early education can start as early as a child’s first year, and in China the government has plans to nearly double the number of children attending preschool.

At the same time, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based organization that annually measures worldwide educational progress, has produced a series of prekindergarten “toolkits” outlining the best practices—and benefits—of successful early-ed programs.

“A growing body of research recognises that early childhood education and care (ECEC) brings a wide range of benefits,” according to the third edition of the OECD’s Starting Strong: A Quality Toolbox for Early Education and Care. That includes establishing a foundation for lifelong learning, a more level playing field for each child, overall reductions in poverty and inequality, and “better social and economic development for the society at large.”

Still, those benefits, the report continues, hinge on one word: quality.

“Expanding access to services without attention to quality will not deliver good outcomes for children or the long term productivity benefits for society,” according to the report. “Furthermore, research has shown that if quality is low, it can have long-lasting detrimental effects on child development, instead of bringing positive effects.”

That’s usually where the debate breaks down, says Milagros Nores, the assistant director for research at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

The best, most effective early-education programs must meet certain standards, including a curriculum, class sizes, and a low teacher-child ratio. At the same time, she said, all children—from poor minorities to better-off white kids—should have equal access to bridge a relatively narrow but widening achievement gap between middle-class and upper-class children.

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Researchers on both sides of the debate can get “a narrow view” of the effectiveness of prekindergarten programs, particularly because not all programs in the states have the same levels of funding, standards, and access.

The goal should be to reach all children, including the middle class, “who are lagging behind the upper incomes,” says Nores. Studies should compare high-quality programs with one another; otherwise the results will be skewed, and researchers can pick and choose data to back up their opinions. In her view, though, early education is worth the investment.

Universal prekindergarten can have “tremendous effects,” Nores adds, “when you do it well.”