Building Better Kids: A Big Idea We Should Embrace

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Dana Goldstein says that if she could have her pick of one big idea to inject into the presidential campaign, it would be universal pre-K schooling:

Any radical rethinking of American public policy ought to start with a consideration of one of our most politically neglected populations: The majority of 3-to-5-year-olds who have no access to high-quality, low-cost educational options. As scientists have learned more about the brain, they’ve concluded the early years are the most crucial ones for cognitive development. Seventy-five percent of middle-class kindergarteners can write their own names, compared to just about half of poor kindergartners. The typical middle-class 5-year old can identify all 26 letters of the alphabet on her first day of school; a 5-year old living in poverty may know only two letters. By first grade, middle-class children have double the vocabulary of their low-income peers.

Regular readers know that I’m on board with this. In fact, aside from universal healthcare, it’s about the only big-ticket social program that I’m completely sold on. My reasons, however, are a little different than Dana’s. Universal pre-K might very well raise academic achievement, but frankly, the evidence on that score is fairly thin. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to support universal pre-K anyway.

We all know that nothing is certain except death and taxes, but with that caveat out of the way I think we can safely say that there’s a pretty compelling body of evidence that pre-K has a ton of benefits. It might raise IQs and jumpstart academic achievement — and certainly won’t do any harm — but that’s the least of its effects. A growing body of research suggests that pre-K increases high school completion rates; reduces rates of substance abuse; reduces felony rates; increases lifetime income; and improves non-IQ cognitive traits like the ability to delay gratification, the ability to hold a job, and the ability to control your temper. What’s more, there’s a growing body of evidence that especially bad home environments cause permanent biological damage and can do it before the age of two.

So it’s not just pre-K. It’s also things like home nursing visits and better childcare in our poorest neighborhoods. And it wouldn’t be cheap. But as near as I can tell, taking, say, $100 billion out of K-12 education and redirecting it to pre-K would almost certainly be a pure win. That might not be the best way to fund it, but if political realities prevent us from raising more money in the near future, shifting spending would be a second-best alternative. Given the almost endless procession of educational reforms that turn out to have no measurable effect once you scale them up or study them for more than a couple of years, I doubt that decreasing funding for K-12 would have anywhere near as big an effect as increasing funding for pre-K. There are too many interest groups dedicated to K-12 funding to make this kind of funding shift easy, but it’s something worth pushing for anyway.

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And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

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