Editorial: Universal preschool should pay for itself in the long run

President Joe Biden’s massive American Jobs Plan is likely to come in two parts: a traditional transportation package as well as a domestic package that includes, among other priorities, universal prekindergarten.

It’s is an education initiative deserving of broad support.

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The National Institute for Early Education Research released a study at the end of March claiming that universal high-quality prekindergarten is attainable within three decades if the federal government partners with state and local governments to share costs.

Such investment could expand prekindergarten offerings to millions of additional children, granting a wider swath of the population a head start.

It was long believed that the initial burst of benefits attributed to preschool tended to dissipate within a few years, casting doubt on the long-term benefit of an earlier start to education. But more recent thinking and analysis indicate that preschool attendance correlates with higher rates of college attendance, lower rates of incarceration and lower likelihood of substance addiction later in life.

Pre-K programs also afford greater opportunity for health interventions like screenings for communities with less access to doctors.

Biden’s pledge would help ensure equal access to preschool, benefiting children and parents alike. This access creates a ripple effect. Experts chalk up some of the benefits of pre-K to the importance of having reliable day care even more so than the explicit value of a formal educational environment. Consistent and quality child care frees both parents to work more easily or pursue higher education and, thereby, increase their earning potential over time. That can lead to better outcomes for children, especially those in lower-income families.

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Opponents of universal preschool generally cite the costs as prohibitive and point to the dissipation of educational benefits. But this ignores the fact that in the long run, providing universal preschool should pay dividends for itself in terms of reducing incarceration and addiction rates. Current data indicate that the children who attend preschool are more likely to succeed and become productive members of society.

Some cities and states already offer free pre-K. Scaling these programs to the national level and standardizing the offerings wouldn’t require parents to enroll their children if they prefer not to, but making the program available is an important step toward providing equal opportunity to all of America’s children.