NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 15, 2009

In "Do Investments in Universal Early Education Pay Off? Long-term Effects of Introducing Kindergartens into Public Schools," author Elizabeth Cascio sought to estimate the long-term effects of a large public investment in universal early education.   She is particularly interested in explaining the lack of any positive effect for blacks, for whom the funding initiatives had an effect on overall school enrollment at age five as large as that for whites. 

She finds:

  • That within only two years of the new state funding, school districts in the typical state were 21 percentage points more likely to offer kindergarten.
  • Public school kindergarten enrollment rates rose by 33 percentage points.
  • That white children who turned five after the typical reform took effect were 2.5 percent less likely to become high school dropouts and 22 percent less likely to be institutionalized as adults than those who turned five before the reform.
  • She does not find positive effects of the same magnitude for blacks, even though they experienced comparable increases in their enrollment in public kindergartens after these initiatives.
  • Nor does she find any evidence that the kindergarten funding initiatives had a significant impact on other outcomes targeted by state policymakers, including grade retention, receipt of public assistance, employment, and earnings.

According to Cascio, the general lack of a positive effect for universal kindergarten may be consistent with its low-intensity nature as an early intervention.  The explanation that receives the most support is that state funding for kindergartens crowded out participation in federally funded early education, such as Head Start, among the poorest five-year olds.

The state funding initiatives she studies were passed after the federal government introduced Head Start -- a program that continues to be a key alternative to universal preschool for disadvantaged children today.  Cascio's findings raise the possibility that:

  • State investments in universal education for children under age five may have some positive effects.
  • But that the current availability of higher-quality alternatives for some groups may blunt the impact of such investments.

Source: Lester Picker, "Effects of Introducing Kindergartens into Public Schools," NEBR Digest, September 2009; based upon: Elizabeth Cascio, "Do Investments in Universal Early Education Pay Off? Long-term Effects of Introducing Kindergartens into Public Schools," National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2009.

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