The Game-Changing Potential of Universal Preschool

Done right, it can save a lot of money in the long run, and it can benefit not only poor students but their communities as well.
by | March 6, 2013 AT 5:00 PM

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for universal preschool. It sounds expensive, but if done right it could save taxpayers money and dramatically improve academic performance.

The AppleTree Institute develops a curriculum and teacher training for three- and four-year-olds and runs a Washington, D.C., charter school. The school -- in essence a lab school for AppleTree's R&D efforts -- started with 36 students in 2004 and now serves 640 children at seven campuses across the city. Its students mostly come from backgrounds marked by broken homes, grinding poverty and absent parents.

AppleTree's research-based curriculum, "Every Child Ready," is a full-day program that identifies students' weaknesses and intervenes to correct things without using overtly academic techniques such as flash cards that can easily turn off preschoolers.

The results are impressive. AppleTree's data show that children who enter the program already have more limited vocabularies than their more advantaged peers. But after two years, AppleTree students are outperforming those peers.

For instance, in 2010, the average entering AppleTree student scored around the 35th percentile on the Test of Preschool Early Literacy. Two years later, those same students had improved to around the 75th percentile. Math results were similar. AppleTree students entered scoring around the 20th percentile on the Test of Early Mathematics Ability and were at about the 65th percentile upon graduation.

Best of all, it's the most at-risk children who make the greatest gains. And early evidence suggests that those gains don't dissipate. AppleTree graduates recognize about 25 percent more letters in kindergarten and are much better oral readers in first and second grades than their D.C. public-school counterparts.

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AppleTree's approach clearly works, but comprehensive preschool programming isn't cheap. AppleTree supplements annual D.C. school funding of approximately $14,500 per student with about $3,500 per student in private grants.

So how does the program save money? The answer is special education -- or in this case, the absence of it. Effective early childhood education reduces the need for highly expensive special ed, and the savings redound almost immediately to a school district. In effect, preschool can pay for itself.

While $14,500 is the average annual cost of educating a nonspecial needs student in D.C.'s public schools, about 17 percent of the system's students are identified as needing special education. The average annual cost of educating those students is about $64,000.

But less than 3 percent of the students who complete AppleTree's program are later designated for special education. With a difference of nearly $50,000 per year between regular education and special needs children, the school district stands to save a stunning $589,000 over the K-12 career of every student who otherwise would have required special education. And those numbers don't account for the reduced crime and poverty levels and increased economic productivity that flow from success in school.

The results that high-quality, early education programs like AppleTree are achieving have the potential to be a game changer. Their impact would positively affect issues from crime and social spending to economic competitiveness and the widening gap between rich and poor -- all while saving taxpayers money and easing strained education budgets.