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Give Parents Money, Not Universal Pre-K

There's no better way to help children develop and succeed.

John Moore/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, in her State of the State address, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo staked her second term on an ambitious promise. “Tonight, I pledge to be the governor who brings universal public Pre-K to Rhode Island,” she said. “By the time I leave office, there will be a Pre-K seat for every four-year-old whose parents want it. The budget I’ll submit later this week sets us on a path to make that happen. Let’s get this done.”

Across our divided nation, universal pre-Kindergarten is one of the few policies with bipartisan momentum. In announcing his candidacy for president earlier this month, Julian Castro touted his success in expanding full-day pre-K while he was mayor of San Antonio. “As president,” he said, “I’ll make pre-K for the U.S.A. happen!” On the other side of the aisle, conservative states like Alabama have been pouring money into expanding their state-funded pre-K programs, while Oklahoma was one of the first in the nation to implement pre-K for all.

Here’s the problem: Universal pre-K is bad policy. Public money for early childhood education would be much better spent on programs that support families.

The term universal pre-K refers to publicly funded education for 4-year-olds—and, increasingly, 3-year-olds—regardless of income or other eligibility criteria other than age. To address the challenge of school readiness, the policy treats the child as the unit of change. Give her extra time in an academic environment, the theory goes, and she’s more likely to arrive in Kindergarten with the building blocks needed to succeed. This is not strictly false, but it misses the big picture of how child development works.

Children are making over a million neural connections per second in the earliest months in life, and there is now a scientific consensus that brain architecture is being built long, long before a child enters pre-K. This means that pre-K, as an early childhood policy, is pointing at the wrong part of the developmental arc; it’s adding a second floor before ensuring the foundation is sturdy. What determines the strength of a child’s neurological structures is a dizzying interplay of environmental factors centered on the home. An interdisciplinary panel of experts put it this way in a landmark report in 2000 titled Neurons to Neighborhoods:

The scientific evidence on the significant developmental impacts of early experiences, caregiving relationships, and environmental threats is incontrovertible. Virtually every aspect of early human development, from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning early in the prenatal period and extending throughout the early childhood years.

Put another way: When families thrive, children thrive. Policymakers and child-education advocates acknowledge this truism, but rarely take the next logical step of promoting greater family support. A 2017 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, making the “Business Case for Child Care,” put a fine point on the problem with focusing mainly on formal pre-K. “The commonly made distinction between ‘care’ and ‘education’ in early childhood is a false one,” the author, Katherine B. Stevens of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote. “Childcare is early education, regardless of the building it occurs in or what we call it. The question is only whether it’s advancing or impeding children’s learning.” And yet, that same report’s recommendations never mention the idea of expanding family support.

American families need it. All but the highest income levels are struggling to get by, thanks to a combination of sky-high child care costs, rising debt, and stagnant wages. This is causing them tremendous stress: A 2014 study found that more than three-quarters of parents reported money being a “somewhat” or “very” significant source of stress. And chronic parental stress is inherently opposed to optimal child development; one study notes it has been “associated with numerous undesirable outcomes,” including heightened rates of parental depression and marital conflict, as well as less attentive, harsher parenting—none of which is good for an impressionable, developing brain.

The obvious policy solution for improving early childhood education, then, is to give families money in one form or another—such as child allowances, tax credits, or child care subsidies.

Researchers have been able to consistently show that doing so has a tremendously positive impact on all child outcomes, including educational outcomes. The evidence is not theoretical, but gathered through natural experiments. A Chalkbeat report last year on more than 20 studies of income-boosting programs concluded that “over and over, [researchers] find that more money or benefits helps kids in school.” These benefits regularly outweigh the estimated impact of giving a child an excellent versus an average teacher, as well as outweighing the impact of pre-K on its own.

There’s no doubt that universal pre-K, implemented well, helps the children who attend. This was recently reaffirmed by the largest study of pre-K to date, which found that a quality pre-K program substantially boosts the likelihood of attendees ending up with a college degree. It is far better than doing nothing at all, and there’s a place for pre-K in the early childhood landscape. There is, however, a key question of opportunity cost. Pouring tens of millions of dollars into universal pre-K leaves a pittance for more effective family-support programs.

Because development in the earliest months and years are so inextricably relationship-based, there is no “one best system” for early care. Between half and two-thirds of young American children—who number in the tens of millions—need outside care because their parents are in the workforce. These parents may have a strong preference for a caregiver who is related to them or who speaks their language, or they may want a smaller home-based care, or they may desire a Montessori experience, and so on. Right now, due to a lack of affordable, available, quality care, most don’t even a choice at all; two-thirds of parents report having “only one” or “just a few” viable care options.

The solutions are myriad, and not mutually exclusive. Perhaps we should pay stay-at-home-parents their long-deserved due. I’d argue that it’s time to make child care a common, free good by providing a voucher to cover all costs. A generous child allowance, longer paid family leave, tripling the child tax credit, boosting the EITC—there are no shortage of options. All of them move towards what Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a former Department of Education official who first framed the family support vs. school readiness tension, suggests as the goal of family support policies: providing “the best possible conditions for families with children.”

There’s broad support for this idea. A recently released poll by the First Five Years Fund found that more than 80 percent of Americans—including over 60 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of independents, and 90 percent of Democrats—support ideas like increasing the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit or increasing funding to help provide affordable child care for working parents.* It’s even more popular than universal pre-K.

The current state of affairs isn’t sustainable. American day care is on life support thanks to tapped-out parents and a lack of public investment. The future of America quite literally depends on implementing the right early-childhood policies, as new CDC data confirmed once more that our birth rate has plummeted below the replacement rate. Two major reasons for that are the absurd costs of child-rearing and the lack of family support.

Universal pre-K comes from a good place. It’s a recognition that early education matters, and that children from historically disadvantaged backgrounds have the least access to formal care settings. But a universal family support policy would accomplish so much more per dollar, and can address the problem at its roots. Give struggling parents the financial means to do what is best for their children, and it will help to relieve the stress that has burdened American families—and held back millions of kids—for far too long.

*A previous version of this article misstated the tax credit about which the First Five Years Fund polled.