--Large state investments in universal early-childhood education programs do not necessarily yield clear benefits for more disadvantaged students--
STANFORD--A new study by Dartmouth economist Elizabeth Cascio finds that state funding of universal kindergarten has some long-term benefit for white students but does not necessarily yield clear benefits for African American students. The results of Cascio’s research appear in the forthcoming issue of Education Next.
Cascio found that white children who participated in state-funded universal pre-kindergarten were less likely to be high school dropouts and likely to be incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized as adults. College attendance also increased among whites, but by a smaller amount than the dropout rate. Cascio found no positive effects for African Americans in any of these areas, despite comparable increases in their enrollment in public kindergartens.
The study also showed no discernible impact for either group on many of the long-term outcomes desired by policymakers, including minimizing grade retention and dependence on public assistance and positively impacting later employment and earnings.
Cascio’s study sheds light on the likely consequences of any new universal program by estimating the impact of earlier state interventions to introduce kindergarten into public schools. In the 1960s and 1970s, many states, particularly in the southern and western parts of the country, began offering grants to school districts operating kindergarten programs. Districts were quick to respond. The average state experienced a significant increase in its kindergarten enrollment rate within two years after an initiative. To understand the long-term impacts of universal kindergarten, Cascio investigated programs in the 24 states that introduced state funding for universal kindergarten after 1960.
In considering why African Americans might not have benefited as much as whites from state’s kindergarten funding initiatives, Cascio hypothesizes that kindergarten funding may have disproportionately drew African Americans out of higher-quality education settings. Cascio found that the introduction of state funding for kindergarten prompted a reduction in Head Start participation among African Americans. Head Start has historically been an important education provider for five-year-olds in the absence of public kindergarten.
Overall, the study’s findings suggest that, in the absence of higher-quality alternatives, participation in a low intensity preschool program may have some limited positive long term effects.
“Even a weak program may be better than no program at all, as can be seen in the results for whites,” Cascio writes. “When alternatives already exist for many disadvantaged children, however, universal programs may not yield additional benefits for that group.”
Read “What Happened When Kindergarten Went Universal?” available online at www.educationnext.org.
Elizabeth U. Cascio is assistant professor of economics at Dartmouth College.
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
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