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May 18, 2016

Policy proposal for a universal preschool program

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Day-in and day-out, politicians and pundits tout their preferred policies to improve the current economic situation. The majority of the proposals put forth from all ends of the political spectrum are nothing short of the same ideas that have been hanging around for years.

On occasion, an idea with real potential emerges from the endless chatter. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced support for an idea that fits this mold: working with states to develop a high-quality preschool system accessible to all children.

With each side offering a different path to achieve the shared goals of economic security and debt reduction, it is imperative to search for policies that partially fulfill the ideals of the left and the right. A universal preschool program is a policy proposal that would provide each side with something to latch onto.

Research conducted by Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Heckman has shown that investing in a high-quality preschool program leads to economic and social benefits that are unmatched by many other public expenditures. According to Heckman, children who attend a high-quality preschool program, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, see an increase in educational attainment, enjoy higher lifetime earnings, and more fully develop their social skills. These improvements in child outcomes offer the country invaluable economic and societal benefits that could easily be realized if lawmakers move to implement a high-quality, universally accessible preschool program.

While most across the political landscape would agree that these economic benefits are valuable and providing universal access to preschool is a noble goal, many of those same people would argue that we simply cannot afford to take on such an ambitious endeavor.

There would be start-up costs, of course; there is no question about that. Overtime, however, there would be significant savings in other areas of government spending. For instance, children who attend a high-quality preschool program are less likely to commit crimes, according to a HighScope Perry Study. Reducing the crime rate is a significant benefit to society on its own, but less crime would also mean less taxpayer money spent on the criminal justice system.

Other savings resulting from a universal preschool program could come from the education budgets. Access to a high-quality preschool program reduces the chances of students developing behavioral problems, thus reducing government spending on additional resources geared toward educating these students, according to studies.

Adding a universally accessible preschool program to the public education system would undoubtedly create a vast number of jobs. It would take thousands of administrators to set up and maintain the programs across the country as well as many more qualified teachers to manage the classrooms.

For the last several years, the main focus of fiscal and economic policy has been deficit reduction. Although deficit reduction is important, it has overshadowed the most pressing issue of our time: unemployment. Unemployment has trended downward nationally in most recent months, but has remained stubbornly high in many areas of the country. If lawmakers seek to provide economic security for individuals and families, programs to create jobs need to be a part of any deals reached.

In addition to jobs created in the short term, high-quality preschool is also one of the most cost-effective ways to develop a skilled workforce for the future. Research shows that students from underprivileged backgrounds who attend a high-quality pre-school program make significant gains in cognition and social-emotional development. Although this research pertains to a specific group of students, further research suggests that though all students make gains in these areas, those from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to gain the most. A well-trained labor force is vital for any thriving economy. Investing in programs that will enhance our workforce will help put our communities and country on a path toward long-term economic stability.

A universal high-quality preschool program offers huge economic benefits but also comes with the added bonus of appealing to both sides of the political aisle. Proof comes in the form of the state-run preschool programs in the deep red states of Oklahoma and Georgia. With this proposal, Obama offers lawmakers a real chance to begin to solve some of the country’s most pressing economic problems in a bipartisan manner – and they should seize it.

Patrick Kenney is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at pkenney@student.umass.edu.

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