Does Preschool Pay Off That Much?

Feb 18, 2015

Joanna Decker teaches a lesson about stomach acid to preschoolers at Vestal's Jewish Community Center.
Credit Solvejg Wastvedt/WSKG News

There’s a popular statistic regarding education for young children: “Every dollar we invest in quality early childhood education saves seven dollars later on.” The statistic appeared in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, and people just keep quoting it.

But it’s a really vague statement. “Early childhood education” can mean a lot of things, and then there’s that all-important phrase “high-quality.”

So where does the figure come from? Steve Barnett and Arthur Reynolds are the ones to ask. The seven-to-one statistic comes mostly from two studies that they worked on.

Barnett directs the National Institute for Early Education Research. His study looks at a preschool for disadvantaged kids in Michigan called the Perry Preschool. Barnett tracked the kids as they became adults, checking in with them at ages 19, 27 and 40. Preschool attendees had all kinds of long-term benefits, like higher-paying jobs and fewer arrests. He estimated the financial payoff for society from these outcomes and compared that to the program’s cost. The follow-up studies at ages 27 and 40 found even bigger results.

“Our certainty about the high payoff relative to the cost increases over time,” Barnett says.

Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota, did something similar with the Chicago Public Schools’ Child Parent Centers preschool. He found a seven dollar return, too.

But these are two unique programs, and they don’t resemble most preschools. The Perry program had a really high teacher to student ratio, and teachers did weekly home visits. The Chicago program required two and a half hours a week of parent involvement.

Reynolds says his seven-to-one figure doesn’t apply to just any preschool.

“Would an average program, or a medium-quality program that wasn’t the Child Parent Centers have those benefits? Likely not,” he says.

Barnett agrees. “The problem with the way people use the number is they’re not talking about those studies,” he says. “They’re talking about some other preschool program. There are a lot of early childhood programs to which it does not apply at all.”

Barnett and Reynolds offered a list of five things that would make a program measure up: small classes, a strong curriculum, certified teachers, support for teachers and salaries comparable to those at public schools.

How do area preschools measure up? Marlene Schwartz Patrick directs early childhood programs at Vestal’s Jewish Community Center. She runs a preschool funded by the state’s Universal pre-kindergarten, or UPK program.

That means one item on the list is a given. State-funded preschools cap class size at 20, with a teacher and two aides. Schwartz Patrick says her teachers all have master’s degrees – another check. A recent preschool lesson was all about stomach acid.

Teacher Joanna Decker poured 7-Up into each preschooler’s plastic bag of cracker crumbs. The kids squished the crackers with their fingers and watched them dissolve.

“Keep scrunching it up,” Decker said. “That’s what your food looks like when it’s in your tummy.”

Clearly, lessons are happening. But Schwartz Patrick says running the preschool costs more than what the state gives out in funding, which makes the last thing on the list a no-go.

“We need competent, caring, certified, professional staff, but we don’t generate the income to pay them say what a district position would pay,” Schwartz Patrick says.

She says her teachers could make up to 50% more at public schools. And many do. Keeping them, Schwartz Patrick says, would take more money than she has.

Arthur Reynolds says in general, there’s a certain amount of money you have to spend on a preschool before you get any return at all.

“You’d want to be at that $5,000 range,” he says, “And if you went to $7,000 you’d probably get some additional benefits if you allocated it toward effective principal.”

He says preschools don’t have to be perfect to pay off. Even a medium-quality preschool has a better return than most social programs. But fall below about $5,000 per child for a half-day preschool, and, he says, the benefits disappear.

New York’s spending on pre-kindergarten doesn’t meet the $5,000 mark – in 2013 the state spent on average $3,600 per child. Governor Cuomo announced increased spending on pre-k last year. The only question is, how much will we save for every dollar we put in?