There is a strong argument that the roots of inequality are in early childhood and therefore we could use a major shift in social policy toward early intervention. The cohort study of New York City public school children traced race gaps in academic achievement back to 3rd grade. In fact, other work has shown that such gaps are present at school entry in kindergarten, and that they do not diminish over time. Studies of early childhood interventions such as Perry Preschool, Carolina Abecedarian, and Head Start find long-run impacts on adult outcomes such as college attainment, health and adult crime.
This evidence leads to the conclusion that spending on early childhood education has a high social rate of return. In other words, the benefits of a large increase in spending on early childhood education would most likely exceed the costs. Moreover, the benefits would accrue not just to individuals but to society as a whole, in the form of reduced crime, higher taxable earnings, and reduced dependency on the social safety net. This makes early childhood intervention something of a “free lunch” - a rare policy that benefits everyone while also remediating societal inequality.
In a perfect world, we would have high quality programs available to all children. In reality, since resources are scarce, we have to make hard decisions about the best use of public funds. A key tradeoff is whether to spend money on universal access to pre-K, or to expand and intensify offerings for children who need the most help. The best available evidence suggests that the largest returns on investment comes from expanding access for disadvantaged children.
Many children in New York City and elsewhere already attend high quality private pre-K programs. For these families, a universal pre-K program would merely be a transfer of resources (since they used to pay for pre-K and then it is provided for free). This is a benefit, to be sure, but we cannot expect it to close achievement gaps. In my view, scarce public resources should be spent first on efforts to reach 100 percent coverage for disadvantaged children.
This could be achieved with a means-tested cash grant to families seeking to enroll their children in a preschool program of their choice, similar to the way the Pell Grant program operates for postsecondary education. Expansion of existing means-tested pre-K programs such as Head Start is also an option. Of course steps must be taken to ensure that quality does not suffer, and policymakers should aggressively seek to improve quality through cost-neutral policies such as increased accountability and monitoring.
Our best hope for meaningful progress toward closing achievement gaps is to ensure that no poor child is denied access to the great gift of a rich and stimulating early environment.