New York tackles the pre-school gap

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Teacher and pupils catching snowflakes in HarlemImage source, Reuters
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Catching snowflakes in Harlem: New York wants to catch up on the lack of pre-school places

New York's richest are going to have to pay for some of New York's youngest, under new Mayor Bill de Blasio's flagship plan for more pre-school places.

The proposed tax on those earning above $500,000 (£307,000) would provide free, full-day pre-school classes for every four-year-old.

It's the latest in a wave of expansions of pre-school education running across the United States.

President Barack Obama hailed the importance in his state of the union address last week, welcoming that 30 states were raising funds for more pre-school places.

"Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high-quality early education," said President Obama.

And he promised to put together a coalition of political leaders, businesses and philanthropists to campaign for widening access to pre-school education across the US.

Tale of two cities

"Universal pre-K" - that's K for kindergarten - has become an unlikely political hot topic. Local news websites are filled with photos of suit-and-tie politicians crouched on tiny infant chairs.

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan regularly tweets his support.

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President Barack Obama called for a national coalition to promote pre-school classes

Republicans say it shouldn't be seen as a Democrat issue, at local level they are backing schemes too.

And political analysts point to its cross-party popularity, particularly with female voters, and highlight how the issue is rippling across the country.

In San Antonio in Texas a local sales tax has been adopted to fund pre-school places. There are plans for a place for every child in Seattle.

On the west coast, it has become the top priority for California Democrats, with a $1bn (£610m) plan to provide places for all four-year-olds.

And the predicted benefits are not just academic.

California's plans, launched in January, claim that improving early years education would cut crime in later life and reduce the state's prison population by 13,000.

The most common argument in favour of expanding pre-school classes is that it can bridge some of the gap between rich and poor before children start formal lessons.

Rate of return

In New York City, for the wealthy there are pre-kindergarten classes in elite private schools charging more than $30,000 (£18,000) per year.

But tens of thousands of families are left without any place in public pre-schools. It's a "tale of two cities" that Mayor De Blasio says he wants to stop.

Image source, AP
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Bill de Blasio campaigned on a promise for pre-school places

Universal pre-school is meant to provide a more level playing field at a time when it has the greatest chance of making an impact.

Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman has produced measurements of how much of an impact. He says there is a return of $7 for every extra $1 spent on pre-school education.

"Poor health, drop-out rates, poverty and crime" can all be reduced, he says, by giving deprived families access to pre-school classes in the first five years of a child's life. This would save $48,000 (£29,000) per child in long-term public spending.

Prof Heckman, from the University of Chicago, says early childhood is when the brain is developing rapidly and when support is most effective and when it is most likely that children can be nurtured as "productive citizens".

He argues that investing in early childhood is the way to strengthen the economy.

Long-term benefits

Evidence has been provided by a pre-school scheme running in New Jersey, where places have been offered to all three- and four-year-olds in 31 deprived areas.

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How early are fates decided? Pre-kindergarten class in New York

Research from Rutgers University, carried out for the National Institute for Early Education Research, found that seven years after children had left pre-school there were still measurable benefits in language, literacy and maths.

And advocates for more early education talk about pre-kindergarten as a kind of mass immunisation project.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) supports spending on early education, saying children who have been to pre-school are the equivalent of a year ahead at the age of 15.

But the OECD's Andreas Schleicher says universal pre-school is a good idea, but no panacea for the weaknesses in US education.

"Compared internationally, the US is doing very well in primary schooling, it is doing so-so in middle-school, and it is doing poorly in high school," says Mr Schleicher.

"In other words, the US school system adds less value as students grow older than is the case in other countries and that is not an issue you fix with pre-schools."

Targeted or universal?

There are other voices of caution against seeing pre-school education as an educational wonder drug.

Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution think tank, has warned that well-intentioned enthusiasm is running ahead of the evidence.

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Pre-school campaigners in Utah show childcare as game of snakes and ladders

He has argued that there are mixed outcomes from different types of pre-school and that policymakers are making "prodigious leaps of faith" if they generalise about the benefits.

He has raised questions about whether it is better to target spending at those most in need, rather than to offer universal access.

Those campaigning for more pre-school have highlighted that by international standards the US is already a long way behind.

Most Western industrialised countries have much higher proportions of children in pre-school. They are also often centrally funded, while US schemes rely on a patchwork quilt of local funding.

For instance, in England there are free part-time nursery places available for all three- and four-year-olds.

And in Finland, almost all children are in the pre-school year. But this is at the age of six, with formal school beginning at seven.

For the United States, it seems likely that the tiny chairs in the nursery classes are going to have a lot more high-profile visitors.