The Economics of Investing in Universal Preschool Education in California

Justin Torres

Lynn A. Karoly, James H. Bigelow
RAND Corporation
2005

A new RAND report finds that high-quality, universal preschool for 4-year-olds in California would eventually generate between $2 and $4 for every public dollar invested. It advocates a publicly financed, voluntary program that would place highly qualified teachers in small classrooms in adequate facilities. The price tag of $1.7 billion a year would be offset by future gains. "It's a simple equation. Investing in preschool leads to a stronger workforce, better jobs, reduced juvenile crime, and an increased standard of living for all Californians," said Lois Salisbury of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which funded the study and favors universal preschool. While such analyses invariably deploy a zillion variables and assumptions to achieve their silver bullet outcomes, this one offers decent evidence. The problems are legion, though: how do you implement such a program, what does academically challenging mean in the pre-school context, and can a cash-strapped state possibly front the cost of such a program? (Californians will be pleased, no doubt, to know that actor Rob Reiner, Meathead of "All in the Family" fame, has launched a statewide bus tour promoting universal preschool.) As the study notes, preschool programs across the country vary dramatically in quality, and this study bases its analysis on successful programs, specifically on results from the Chicago Child-Parent Centers program, which resembles what they envision for California. Clearly, sector-wide results including Head Start programs of all stripes evidence decidedly mixed results. Done right, one can envision pre-school programs that pay off as handsomely as RAND suggests they might. That it has only intermittently been done right is a fact not really engaged by the study's authors. You can find the study here.