Universal Pre-School in the United States: When Should Kids Start School?

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The United States mandates education for its children and provides public access to that education. When a child’s formal education begins, however, depends on several factors, including the state, the child, and the wishes of the child’s parents. But when exactly we should begin providing that education is up for debate. Read on to learn about the concept of universal pre-school, and the arguments for and against it.

What’s the current status of Preschool in the U.S.?

On March 4, 2014 President Obama announced his intention to allocate $750 million for the foundation of universal, federally funded pre-school in the United States. These funds would guarantee that Pre-K would be available, but not mandatory, for all young Americans, and some research has shown that a pre-school education creates better students and more productive citizens later in life. The concept of universal pre-school is nothing new; several states and cities including New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Boston, and Tulsa have had various forms of universal Pre-K programs since the middle and late 1990s. However, many oppose these measures, saying that a pre-school education does not guarantee success for a child, making the taxpayer investment simply not worth the risk. While there are numerous studies indicating the success rates of pre-school educated children, these reports are disputed, and plenty of other reports exist that argue pre-school does not positively affect a student’s academic success later in their education. It remains to be seen whether the President will be able to garner enough support, and funds, for this educational endeavor.

What are the arguments for Universal Pre-school?

Supporters of universal pre-school highlight the long list of rewards students can reap from a Pre-K education, while arguing that future returns, as well as the influx of former stay-at-home parents into the workforce, will actually improve the economy now and in the future. Advocates point out a wide array of benefits that can stem from obtaining a Pre-K education. These include higher test scores, better emotional development, higher high school graduation rates, lower poverty rates, and the end of racial socio-economic disparity.

The jump start on learning for pre-schoolers allows them to enter Kindergarten with some pre-existing content knowledge and experience in working in a classroom setting with their peers. The end result of these benefits, supporters argue, is that these students will achieve a higher level of education, get better jobs, and contribute to the end of poverty and race-based economic gaps. Privately-owned pre-schools, while maintaining high standards, are expensive and thus seem to cater to middle and upper class families. Without access to Pre-K due to economic restrictions, many argue that children of low-income families are locked into a cycle of poverty.

The problem that remains, however, is how the government and taxpayers will pay for this type of program. Political advocates have offered popular ways to pay for universal pre-school; New York City’s Mayor De Blasio plans to tax New York’s wealthiest residents to pay for his Pre-K program, while President Obama has suggested increasing the tax on cigarettes from $1.01 to $1.95. Advocates argue that these strategies would allow the government to fund a universal Pre-K program without significant impact on the taxes of average Americans. Additionally, supporters point out the economic benefits of universal pre-school, indicating it will pay for itself and more over time.

What are the arguments against Universal Pre-school?

Opponents argue that universal Pre-K would be detrimental to quality private pre-schools. Opponents dispute the same reports that link the myriad of benefits to a pre-school education, using other reports to argue that students with and without this early start earn similar test scores, high school graduation rates, and career achievement. One of the best sources of support for this argument, opponents claim, is the failure of current federal pre-school programs such as Head Start.

Initiated in 1965 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” Head Start offers low-income families access to pre-school for their children. Within the last decade, educational professionals have been united in their acknowledgement that Head Start fails to achieve its goals of inequality-gap reduction. Advocates claim this is due to a lack of funding and the low quality of the Pre-K offered under Head Start (the pre-school teachers are not required to have a teaching degree), whereas modern universal pre-school proposals call for high-quality education with highly qualified teachers. Opponents, however, say this is evidence that federally-funded Pre-K programs fail to meet the needs of economically disadvantaged students.

Opponents argue the only way to ensure a quality pre-school education is to maintain competition in the Pre-K market, thus prompting privately-owned pre-schools to maintain high standards. Offering free, federally-funded pre-schools could potentially undercut successful private pre-schools and lower the overall standards of a Pre-K education in the United States. With roughly 45 percent of American children already enrolled in pre-school, opponents feel that the introduction of a universal pre-school program would only have negative effects for students, parents, and society.


Educational support is one of the most important things that our government provides for its citizens. We have accepted that young people should be in school, but how young is too young to start? And what are the benefits of providing preschool rather than allowing parents and students to make those choices? These are all intrinsic components of the debate surrounding universally-funded preschool in the United States, and while President Obama has taken concrete action on the subject, the laws are developing.



U.S. Department of Education: Serving Pre-School Children Through Title I

Administration for Children & Families: Federal Office of Head Start


Think Progress: Georgia’s Universal Preschool Program Significantly Improves Children’s Skills

Huffington Post: Do Right By Our Children: Enact Universal Pre-K

National Institute for Early Education Research: The Universal vs. Targeted Debate: Should the United States Have Preschool For All?

U.S. News & World Report: Why the GOP Should Get On Board With Preschool

Nation: How Universal Pre-K Could Redistribute Wealth–Right Here, Right Now

National Affairs: The Dubious Promise of Universal Preschool

Reason Foundation: The Case Against Universal Preschool in California

Heritage Foundation; Universal Preschool’s Empty Promises

Brookings: New Evidence Raises Doubts on Obama’s Preschool For All

ABC: Universal Pre-K: ‘This Whole Thing is a Scam’

Breitbart: Obama Budget Proposal Pushes for $750 Million for Universal Preschool

Huffington Post: Elected Officials Embrace Preschool, But Funding is the Catch

Scholastic: Universal Preschool: Is it Necessary?

The White House: Fact Sheet President Obama’s Plan For Early Education For All Americans

Joseph Palmisano
Joseph Palmisano is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in History and Education. He has a background in historical preservation, public education, freelance writing, and business. While currently employed as an insurance underwriter, he maintains an interest in environmental and educational reform. Contact Joseph at



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