NEPC Review: Do We Already Have Universal Preschool?
A recent report published by a new project at Brookings called “Evidence Speaks” claims that advocates exaggerate unmet need as well as the cost of universal pre-kindergarten (UPK). It estimates that 69 percent of all four-year-olds already attend preschool and that universal access tops out at 80 percent enrollment. To close this modest gap, the report proposes a means-tested subsidy for half-day preschool that fully funds only those in poverty. The estimated cost is $2 to $4 billion per year. Unfortunately, the report vastly underestimates unmet need and costs; both estimates are based on serious factual errors and unfounded assumptions. Access to high-quality preschool (as opposed to attendance in any preschool classroom) for four-year-olds is under 25 percent, not 69 percent. High-quality UPK could enroll more than 90 percent, not 80 percent, of children. Enrollment rates go up with better policy design. Also, the Brookings plan would leave one in five children in low-income families with no access to any preschool education and, since the plan ignores dosage and quality, would leave many more in weak or ineffective programs. The report’s conclusions regarding needs and the costs to meet them are invalid and misleading, and it should not be used as a basis for policymaking.