State funding for kindergartens crowded out participation in federally funded early education, such as Head Start, among the poorest five-year olds.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many states, particularly in the southern and western parts of the country, introduced grants for school districts to begin offering kindergarten programs. In Do Investments in Universal Early Education Pay Off? Long-term Effects of Introducing Kindergartens into Public Schools (NBER Working Paper No. 14951), author Elizabeth Cascio exploits the staggered timing of these initiatives to estimate the long-term effects of a large public investment in universal early education.
She finds that within only two years of this new state funding, school districts in the typical state were 21 percentage points more likely to offer kindergarten, and public school kindergarten enrollment rates rose by 33 percentage points. Using data from the four Decennial Censuses spanning 1970 to 2000, Cascio finds that white children who turned five after the typical reform took effect were 2.5 percent less likely to become high school dropouts and 22 percent less likely to be institutionalized as adults than those who turned five before the reform. She does not find positive effects of the same magnitude for blacks, even though they experienced comparable increases in their enrollment in public kindergartens after these initiatives. Nor does she find any evidence that the kindergarten funding initiatives had a significant impact on other outcomes targeted by state policymakers, including grade retention, receipt of public assistance, employment, and earnings.
According to Cascio, the general lack of a positive effect for universal kindergarten may be consistent with its low-intensity nature as an early intervention. She is particularly interested, however, in explaining the lack of any positive effect for blacks, for whom the funding initiatives had an effect on overall school enrollment at age five as large as that for whites. The explanation that receives the most support is that state funding for kindergartens crowded out participation in federally funded early education, such as Head Start, among the poorest five-year olds.
Cascio cautions that because of the unique historical context of the 1960s and 1970s, we may not be able to generalize from her findings. However, the current body of knowledge on the long-term effects of early education comes from participation in programs of roughly the same vintage as those that she studies. The state funding initiatives she studies were passed after the federal government introduced Head Start a program that continues to be a key alternative to universal preschool for disadvantaged children today. When viewed in this light, Cascios findings raise the possibility that state investments in universal education for children under age five may have some positive effects, but that the current availability of higher-quality alternatives for some groups may blunt the impact of such investments.
-- Lester Picker