Quality public pre-K best investment for closing achievement gap – Amy Fowler

Amy Fowler, candidate for Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board.
Amy Fowler, candidate for Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board. contributed photo

Singing, playing musical instruments, pretending or building things with other kids – sounds fun, right?

It is, but all this play is also very important work for developing kids. Kids learn by playing. As they interact with others in preschool, they are learning how to separate from parents, get along with others, share toys and a common space, regulate their emotions, and sit in a circle for 10 minutes. They learn new words from hearing stories read to them and learn pre math skills from scooping sand and cooking simple recipes. They gain confidence from pouring their own glass of water, washing hands independently, and putting on their own coat.

All of this is critical for Kindergarten readiness and future success in school.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, by age 4, economically disadvantaged children are 18 months behind their developmental norm on average. On the bright side, this gap can be dissolved through high quality preschool.

The Abcedarian Project, conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, studied the benefits of preschool on early literacy, and sought to determine long-term effects of preschool on early adulthood. By the time that they reached elementary school, preschool attendees had higher math and literacy scores and were less likely to require special education interventions. Fifteen years later, they were more likely to attend college or have more skilled jobs and were less likely to experience teen pregnancy or marijuana use than their peers who did not attend preschool. Thirty years later, preschool attendees were found to have lower rates of obesity and hypertension.

Everyone benefits when disadvantaged students enter kindergarten better prepared. If more kids have greater skills when they begin kindergarten, then more instructional time can be invested in teaching at a higher level. Including higher-income students in prekindergarten enhances the outcomes for disadvantaged students who benefit from exposure to a diverse group of learners.

Private pre-K is prohibitively expensive for many families, running between $600 and $1,000 a month. Public pre-K is available for students of lower income or with disabilities, but isn’t enough to meet the need. As a result, many students who qualify for public pre-K are added to waiting lists instead of classrooms. In 2016-17, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools served 257 students in pre-K, while 59 remained on a waitlist. Close to 5,000 children remained on waitlists statewide. We can and must do better.

The evidence is clear: Pre-K works. In fact, for every $1 invested in pre-K, society receives $5 to 10 in cost savings. This is a greater benefit:cost ratio than any other intervention aimed at the achievement gap, including reduced elementary school class size and youth job training.

This kind of return on investment has not gone unnoticed: the N.C. General Assembly recently voted to increase funds to North Carolina pre-kindergarten programs. While this is a laudable first step, more needs to be done. The legislature must continue increasing these funds until all parents who would like to send their child to a high-quality prekindergarten program have that opportunity. This is a smart investment that will pay dividends for our students, our communities, and the great state of North Carolina.

Amy Fowler MD MPH is a pediatrician at Chapel Hill Children’s Clinic and is a candidate for Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools Board of Education.