New NEPC Review Says Report Vastly Underestimates Need for Universal Preschool

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Key takeaway: Report provides more confusion than clarity about access and cost of universal preschool

As more and more policymakers look to close opportunity gaps through greater access to high-quality preschool, a new Brookings Institution project called “Evidence Speaks” claims in a recent report that preschool needs and costs are much less than is generally understood.

Professor W. Steven Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, reviewed Do We Already Have Universal Preschool? for the Think Twice think tank review project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

The report estimates that 69 percent of all four-year-olds already attend preschool and that universal access tops out at 80 percent enrollment. To close this modest gap, the authors propose a means-tested subsidy for half-day preschool that fully funds only those in poverty. The report estimates the cost at $2 to $4 billion per year.

Unfortunately, Barnett concludes, both estimates are based on serious factual errors and unfounded assumptions. The report vastly underestimates unmet need as well as costs. It also fails to account for issues of quality.

Access for four-year-olds to high-quality preschool (as opposed to attendance in any preschool classroom, no matter the quality) is under 25 percent, not 69 percent. Barnett also points out that high-quality universal pre-kindergarten could enroll more than 90 percent, not 80 percent, of children. Enrollment rates go up with better policy design. The purportedly modest gap of 11 percentile points is actually a 65-percentile-point gap.

In this regard, it is important to note that the Brookings plan would leave one in five children in low-income families with no access to any preschool education and, since the plan ignores dosage and quality, would leave many more in weak or ineffective programs.

The report’s errors regarding unmet need and quality result in a vast underestimation of costs. “Because economists have long documented the fiscal benefits of high-quality preschool, these increased up-front costs should not discourage action,” Barnett says. “But we need to be honest with ourselves about current needs.” The report’s conclusions regarding needs and the costs to meet them are invalid and, as a consequence, “the report is not just unhelpful, it is misleading,” Barnett concludes.

Find Barnett’s review on the NEPC website at:

Find Do We Already Have Universal Preschool?, by the Brookings Institution, on the web at:

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William Mathis

W. Steven Barnett
Rutgers University
(848) 932-4350
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