8 May, 2016

Family support or school readiness? Contrasting models of public spending on children’s early care and learning

Economic Studies at Brookings | April 2016

Executive Summary | In the United States, public policy and expenditure intended to improve the prospects of children from low-income families have focused on better preparing children for school through Head Start and universal pre-K. This school readiness approach differs from the dominant model of public support for early care and learning in Northern Europe, which places more emphasis on supporting families. It also differs from other government programs in the U.S., such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, that support low-income parents of young children by boosting income.

Empirical comparisons of the impact on school achievement of boosting family income vs. providing free pre-K for four-year-olds, summarized in this paper, suggest that supporting family income is a more cost effective expenditure. A policy midpoint between more money for families vs. more money for pre-K is more money for families to spend on their young children. All these policy options should be on the table and subject to test as the nation moves towards increased attention to and investment in the early years.