Cost of Not Having State Provided Preschool
Updated: Jan 14
The grahic above, appeared in an article published in The New York Times and in The Upshot, this past October. It provides a snapshot of where the US ranks, compared to other countries, in spending on younger children.
Recently, there’s been talk here in the US, that preschool should be state provided for all children as of age three and, I’ll admit, my heart has been aflutter with excitement at the thought.
As it currently stands, state-funded preschool options vary enormously from state to state, often available only to children of low-income families and very limited in terms of age requirements (age four) and number of hours offered per week.
Indeed, it has long puzzled me that in the US, children generally do not receive a full time, publicly provided education until Kindergarten (age five). In this, we have lagged behind so many other countries whose children have access to both inexpensive early years childcare and then fulltime education or preschool (named different things in different education systems) as young as three years old.
The fact that the US has such a comparatively weak state-provided preschool offering puts both parents and kids in a tough spot. First, for parents who need to earn a living, the cost of childcare or preschool can be prohibitive, averaging over $1000 per month per child. (See The True Cost of High Quality Child Care Across the United States,”)
While parents in higher-paying jobs may be able to afford this, it is nonetheless a daunting chunk of their earnings, particularly for single parents. Jan 5, 2022, NPR reported that for a US couple, preschool requires on average 10% of their salary and is the largest expenditure after their rent or mortgage; and that for a single parent, preschool is on average 35% of income. The discussion was an extension of an article published by Kaleb Roedel in December in which he writes, “Nationally, the cost of child care is roughly $10,000 a year per child, which is nearly twice what the government considers affordable. This is why so many families are struggling, and why some are forced to survive on one income.”
In some states, minimum wage remains as low as $8+ per hour (e.g., Minnesota, where “small employers” may pay as little as $8.21 per hour), so a 40-hour work week earns a worker a whopping $328.40 before taxes, or about $1475 per month. (https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/best-states/minimum-wage-by-state.)
While such a worker might qualify for free preschool under a poverty provision, the point still holds that preschool costs represent a hugely disproportionate percentage of total income for most parents. All of which is to say that if we want to enable adults of child-rearing age to participate fully in our workforce and economy, we may need to give them a fighting chance.
Putting aside the needs of parents, let’s focus on what benefits children, and an obvious answer is socialization and good preparation for schooling. Especially in an age when little kids have been sequestered because of Corona 19, deprived of playdates and sing-alongs and so many activities related to natural development, we need to help them make up for lost time.
Quality preschool options that are available to all is a good starting point; even without the specifics of our Corona era, anyone who has ever been around a three or four-year-old has observed the surging curiosity and eagerness to learn that is inherent at that age, a developmental stage that should be nurtured and encouraged by our society at large.
If we back up and consider Kindergarten, it’s surprising how long it took us as a country to acknowledge that it should be part of public education. Although the first US Kindergarten was established 1856, Mississippi was the last state to provide public Kindergarten and didn’t do so until 1986. Now we take Kindergarten and children’s readiness for it for granted and we consider access to public Kindergarten something children are entitled to; it doesn’t require a big jump in our thinking to acknowledge that it makes sense in all ways, and for all reasons, to extend this option to younger children.
Indeed, my question is: Why would the US, a rich country that considers itself forward thinking and a world leader not provide its children with an opportunity enjoyed by the children of other leading nations?
We know that children benefit from early education, we know that most parents need to participate in the workforce and face a significant financial hurdle as they seek child care and preschool options; and we know that the US has been slipping in terms of the academic performance of its youth, vis à vis students in other countries.( U.S. Students Show No Improvement in Math, Reading, Science on International Exam and What 2018 PISA international rankings tell us about U.S. schools ). Yes, it will cost money to educate our youngest students, but can we afford not to do so?
Alas, preschool is perhaps a touchy topic these days as it has been politicized along with so many other things that would best be considered in their own right, not as components of left or right politics. As the purported grownups in the room, it’s our duty to put politics aside for a moment and think about our kids, be they born of red or blue parents. They are, after all, our collective future.
Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO
Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.