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How public pre-K education for all can worsen racial disparities

Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy | April 22, 2021
pre-K students in matching yellow t-shirts sitting in a class

(Photo courtesy of the office of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf)

Tiny toddlers teach us plenty about big entitlements.

President Biden will soon detail his promise of free access to preschool for all young children. The idea polls high among the nation’s parents, most facing a spotty and costly market of child-minders. Many on the political left, including my comrades in Berkeley, salivate at the prospect of a vast, Scandinavian-style entitlement for young children.

But pre-K for all can widen, rather than narrow, racial disparities in children’s early health and learning, say a pair of new studies. Progressives too often ignore how better-off parents often gain the upper hand over expansive entitlements by moving their families close to, or simply politically demanding, higher-quality programs. This in turn reinforces inequities in young children’s growth from the very start.

New York City’s ambitious pre-K effort — an entitlement that may calcify, not close, racial gaps in children’s growth — reveals these disparities in spades. Mayor Bill de Blasio, motivated by virtuous aims, has created over 48,000 new pre-K seats for 4-year-olds since 2014. He endeavors to extend this guarantee to all 3-year-olds, aided by the latest stimulus bill. Under de Blasio’s effort, parents more easily return to jobs and household budgets gain a break, as families no longer sweat over daunting childcare bills.

But the quality of pre-K sites now tilts toward better-off families across New York City. My research team detailed this month how white and Asian-American children attend preschools that host warmer interaction between preschoolers and teachers, where rich language and meaty learning tasks occur around pint-size tables, compared with pre-Ks attended mostly by Black or Latino children.

We replicate and extend this discovery of racial disparities in quality, earlier reported by Princeton University scholars. The magnitude of this quality gap slows the early development of Black and Latino children by about two to four months, relative to their advantaged peers.

Our new study also reveals that classroom quality has markedly improved in programs serving mostly white or Asian children in middle-class and affluent parts of Brooklyn and Queens, since Mayor de Blasio’s initiative got underway seven years ago, while stalling or declining in quality across poor neighborhoods in the Bronx and Lower East Side. It’s difficult to see how this rendition of entitlement will shrink racial gaps in early learning when pre-K quality tilts toward better-off kids.

Additional research may reveal why pre-K quality has become racially arranged in the Big Apple. The dynamics likely mirror segregated schools: Strong teachers exit for more desirable centersdollars never appear to renovate aging and cramped facilities, advantaged parents have the time and money to boost classroom quality. The city remains unwilling to share teacher data for independent analysts, necessary in studying variation in staff qualifications and turnover.

The notion of easing the rising cost of child care is far from new. President George H.W. Bush created, in 1990, portable vouchers to ease costs for millions of poor and middle-class parents, including those earning too much to qualify for Head Start preschools. The newly refundable child and dependent care tax credit is a Republican idea as well: Don’t build a vast and standardized institution when targeted tax policies can relieve private costs and enhance parental choice.

Pre-K entitlements run by public schools win potent support from labor leaders, while often poaching kids from community organizations, many of which have been providing pre-K for more than a century. This is no way to widen options for parents, who hold widely diverse views on how to raise their children, or to thicken the mix of human-scale organizations that undergird civil society.

Biden’s next round of pre-K aid may please middle-class parents, aiming to backstop their “economic security,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month. But is the public priority to move young parents quickly back to work, or to bolster home and child-care settings that elevate the vitality of their toddlers and preschoolers?

Already enlarged child tax credits now backstop strained household budgets for middling families. The president should now take racial justice seriously, putting forth policies that equalize children’s early learning, easing already gross inequities made worse by the pandemic.

Decades of research confirm that preschool enriches the vitality of poor children the most, those too often denied emotionally robust  or cognitively stimulating home environs. Pre-K tends to exert only small and fleeting gains for most middle-class kids. We also know that five decades of public spending focused on poor children has discernibly lifted their early language and social skills toward middle-class norms.

So called “targeted entitlements,” as pursued in Georgia, first ensure that low-income parents gain access to quality pre-K, then eligibility is liberalized to true middle-income families. State monitors guard against quality skewing toward better-off communities. California awards more dollars to schools that serve students with limited English or those raised in poverty, relative to advantaged preschoolers, since the former youngsters have further to travel to clear state learning standards.

The White House might learn from these successes and from the cautionary tale of New York City, dodging the regressive effects of unbridled entitlements. Instead, let’s focus public investment on fairness.

[This commentary was published originally in The Hill]