Now is the time to invest in preschool education. Here’s why

The U.S., like most of the world, is in the throes of a pandemic that has led to collapsing stock prices, plunging retail sales, and surging unemployment. With COVID-19 threatening the lives of millions and impacting every aspect of our daily lives and the global economy, is this the time to think about public investments in the education of young children?

The answer is yes.

Educational opportunities prior to kindergarten lay a foundation for later success in school and life. Attending preschool can have significant long-term benefits, such as higher educational attainment, less delinquency and crime, greater lifetime earnings, and better adult health. But access to these and other early learning opportunities is highly unequal. By kindergarten entry, children in low-income families are 12 months behind children from families with higher incomes in reading and math. High-quality public preschool education—programs that have highly-trained teachers who engage children in well-planned interactions—can greatly offset these income-related disadvantages by an estimated 41% in reading, and 27% in math.

Unfortunately, many children lack access to early education. While preschool participation is near universal for children in higher-income families, it is far less common for children in low- and middle-income families. In 2016, Head Start, a federal preschool program, reached just four of 10 children in poverty. While state-funded prekindergarten programs serve many more children, 55% of 3- and 4-year-olds in families with incomes below $30,000 did not attend any preschool program in 2018. 

If history is any indication, the pandemic’s economic impact will threaten the already precarious state support for early education. States responded to the Great Recession with deep cuts to preschool programs: Average state spending per child fell from $5,191 in 2008 to $4,348 in 2014. Progress on enrollment came to a standstill, shutting the door to preschool for countless children across the U.S. just as the Great Recession drove up child poverty rates and increased the number of children eligible for public preschool programs. 

Preschool education has yet to fully recover. While state spending per child increased in 2019, it remained below the 2007 levels (prior to the funding cuts). 

If we fail to learn from history, millions of children living through the pandemic will again be denied a high-quality preschool education, permanently stunting long-term progress for many. State-funded preschool programs, which now serve more than 1.6 million children a year, will not only need to expand to meet increased demand as recession causes families’ incomes to decline, they’ll also need to ensure their programs deliver the educational quality required for long-term benefits to children and taxpayers. 

States and the federal government can take three steps now to avoid the mistakes made 12 years ago.

First, the federal government must provide funding to stabilize and expand state preschool programs. This should be conditional on the programs meeting high-quality standards with proven effectiveness and the maintenance of the same level of state funding so that federal dollars do not lead to an even greater reduction.

An investment of around $1 to 2 billion this year and next can help preserve quality preschool education. It also will put more people to work providing a future benefit to business and taxpayers. Around 90% of each prekindergarten dollar goes back into the workforce, according to a 2018 report.

Second, improve policy coordination between federal and state preschool programs to actively recruit and better serve preschoolers living in poverty. A 2016 survey revealed that 40% of children in families with annual incomes below $10,000 did not attend even one year of preschool, public or private. Children in low-income families, especially those living in deep poverty, should have access to a high-quality early education that prepares them for future success. For example, Head Start and state preschool programs could coordinate on the location of new providers to target underserved communities and ensure those in poverty are served before moving on to serve others.

Third, both federal and state governments should jointly plan and develop remote learning curricula, summer catch-up programs, and designs for the new normal when classrooms reopen. During this pandemic, many teachers have been left entirely on their own to develop remote education for young children and plan for the future—but they shouldn’t be. 

These are hardly giant steps. The necessary investment is less than 1% of the $500 billion for state and local government proposed by Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

Moreover, there is no investment with a higher long-term potential payoff—if we get it right. 

Steven Barnett is an economist, Board of Governors Professor of Education, and founding co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
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