Panel Paper: Social Efficiency of City-Led Preschool Education Initiative: A Benefit-Cost Analysis

Friday, November 8, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Governor's Square 12 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Atsuko Muroga1, Lauren Decker-Woodrow2, A. Brooks Bowden3, Gay Lynn Lamey2 and Brad Davenport4, (1)Columbia University, (2)Westat, (3)University of Pennsylvania, (4)Pre-K 4 SA

Over the past several decades, high quality early education before kindergarten entry has been discussed as a potential policy solution to improve the life trajectory of children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families. Nevertheless, the current level of federal, state, and local resources are insufficient to reach all children who would qualify for publicly funded programs (Karoly, 2012). Participation in early learning programs today is divided by income; 80% of preschool-aged children from higher income families attend some kind of center-based education while the rate is lower for children from low-income families (Barnett & Nores, 2012). Moreover, program quality varies substantially, implying that all the potential positive benefits for participating children might not be realized with programs of mediocre to low quality (Burchinal et al., 2010; Zaslow et al., 2010; Hatfield et al., 2016). Faced with these challenges, the past 10 years have witnessed an emergence of city-led innovative initiatives to provide high-quality early education in several major cities across the nation.

This study examines the social efficiency of one such initiative, San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA, through a benefit-cost (BC) analysis. Like other cities’ initiatives, Pre-K 4 SA seeks to address the challenge of access and quality through expanding local public funding for high-quality preschool education. San Antonio achieved this through a sales tax rate increase of 1/8 cent, which was voted and approved by its citizens in 2013. The initiative is multidimensional in nature and combines: direct provision of prekindergarten education to 4-year-old children; parent engagement and support; city-wide pre-k educator Professional Development; and grant opportunities for local school districts, parochial schools, charter schools, and child care service providers. Prior evaluations show the program quality at Pre-K 4 SA centers improved overtime and was on average above a threshold that research indicates, and that growth on cognitive, literacy, mathematics, oral language, physical, and social-emotional skills for children who attended Pre-K 4 SA centers were greater than nationally representative normed sample (Westat, 2015; 2016; 2017; 2018). Whether the social benefits generated by this initiative exceeded its cost is a critical yet unanswered policy question.

The BC analysis carefully evaluates both the economic costs and benefits of Pre-K 4 SA. The benefit estimation considers a broad array of program outcomes that has economic values based on existing literature on the economic benefits of early childhood education (e.g., Currie, 2001; Barnett & Masse, 2007; Duncan & Magnuson, 2013; Institute of Medicine & National Research Council, 2014; Temple & Reynolds, 2015; Karoly, 2012, 2016). These outcomes include but are not limited to third-grade state test scores and special education placement of children who previously attended Pre-K 4 SA education centers, as well as labor-force participation and educational attainment of parents who qualified for afterschool childcare services. Cost estimation applies the ingredients method, a rigorous and most-accepted methodology to evaluate the opportunity cost of educational interventions (Levin, McEwan, Belfield, Bowden, & Shand, 2018). The BC-ratio of this study will serve as a basis for comparison with other city-led initiatives in the future.