Why Pre-School is So Vital –

Make It a Public Good

By Shlomo Maital

     Head Start began as a catch-up summer school program that would teach low-income pre-school children in a few weeks what they needed to know to start elementary school – hence the name, head start. It was launched in 1965 by its creator and first director Jule Sugarman.   It was expanded in 1981, re-authorized in 2007..and continues. IT is one of the longest running public programs to tackle poverty in the US. According to Wikipedia,   as of late 2005, “more than 22 million children had participated.”   Economists have shown that the rate of return to investment in Head Start, and in pre-school in general, is astronomical.

   But apparently, this relatively limited program, with its astonishing impact, has not made much of an impact on America’s politicians. Head Start remains limited and is often attacked from the conservative right.

     In the New York Times, University of California (Berkeley) public policy expert David Kirp sends us a reminder: Pre-school is one of the very best ways to break the poverty cycle.   Start early!  (See his “How to break the cycle of poverty”, NYT Op-Ed).

  “How much good does a preschool experience offer children born in poverty? Enough to make their later lives much better, and they pass a heritage of opportunity on to their own children.”

   As readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of N=1 stories. Here is Kirp’s story about one great pre-school program and its impact:

In 1962, 58 African-American 3- and 4-year-olds, all from poor families and likely candidates for failure in school, enrolled in Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich. This was a novel venture, and parents clamored to sign their children up. Louise Derman-Sparks, who taught there, told me she “fell in love with the kids. They were so excited, so intelligent, so curious.” Because the demand could not be satisfied, 65 applicants were turned away. They became the control group in an experiment that confirmed the importance of a child’s first years.

Researchers who tracked these children say this experience shaped their lives. Those in preschool were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. As adults, more have held down jobs, and owned a home and a car. Fewer smoke, drink, use drugs, receive welfare or have gone to prison.

Never mind those economists’ studies showing pre-school investment pays social returns of hundreds of percent!   Why do we not open our windows, flock to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and learn the lesson from this amazing program? Why not initiate a huge pre-school program, as a public service, to tackle systemic poverty, when so many other programs have failed?

   Notice that sad sentence:   “because the demand could not be satisfied”?.

    Parents of small children understand the value of great pre-school.

   Then – why don’t political leaders?