27 Child. Legal Rts. J. 7 (2007)
Benefits and Costs of Quality Early Childhood Education

handle is hein.journals/clrj27 and id is 9 raw text is: Benefits and Costs of Quality Early Childhood
Education
by W Steven Barnett*

Early childhood education is one of the most rapidly
growing sectors in American education.' The vast
majority of states support some early childhood
education programs apart from preschool special
education (which every state mandates2), and an
increasing number of states are committed to
providing every child a public education at age four.3
In a few states, early childhood education is
established as a legal entitlement.4 There is also
movement toward better educational services for
children under three in several states.5 For example,
the Early Head Start program is a federal initiative
for children in poverty.6 Policy leaders support public
investments in early childhood education because
such investments make economic sense.7 Evidence
on   costs  and  benefits  also  influenced  these
developments. This article reviews the economic
studies and puts them in the context of the larger
research literature on the effects of early childhood
education. It concludes that although carefully
designed  programs   and  policies  can  produce
substantial benefits for children with high economic
returns to society, most current programs and policies
are not so well designed and tend to have weak
effects and more limited benefits.
I. Background
Today, most children in the United States enter a
classroom at age three or four.9 In 2005, 78% were in
some form of non-parental care.'0 Half of these
children enter some form of non-parental care before
the age of three, though most are in their own homes
or the homes of caregivers and not classrooms.1
Increased labor force participation and welfare
reform played some role in this trend, but demand for
formal education appears to be imlortant too,
especially  at ages three and four.'   Preschool
attendance rates have increased at roughly the same
pace whether or not the mother is in the labor force,
though they are higher for children of mothers who
work outside the home.'3 Much of the increase in
early care and education has been privately funded,
but public  sector expenditures have increased
substantially as well.4
Although early childhood care and education has
become the norm, the results are far from uniform
with respect to either quality or quantity; leaving
some children left behind altogether.'5 Compared to

K-12 education, early childhood program standards
are generally quite low, especially for child care
programs.16 Parents report that almost all of these
early childhood programs are educational and express
high levels of satisfaction.17 However, research
indicates  wide  variations  in  the  educational
effectiveness of these arrangements.'8 The evidence
on access and quality raises new issues about
children's rights to  equal education  and   the
consequences for future educational success and
social and economic mobility.19 If policies to
improve  access and   quality  can  generate net
economic benefits to society, then it is possible to
increase equality and enforce children's educational
rights  without overly  burdening  taxpayers  or
reducing long-term economic growth.
This article reviews the evidence on the benefits
of early care and education beginning with research
on immediate and short-term effects on children.
However, the primary focus of this article is on the
persistence of education effects and the long-term
economic consequences. The article then moves
beyond these issues to consider the characteristics
that influence program effectiveness with an eye
toward informing the design of programs and policies
likely to yield larger economic benefits. The factors
investigated by this article include the population
served, program design, and the broader social
contexts within which programs operate.
II. Short-term Evidence
Researchers have conducted many studies on the
immediate and short-term effects of preschool
programs.20 Most of this research is found in two
largely separate, but related, literatures: one on
educational interventions and the other on child
care.21 Traditionally, these literatures focused on
different  questions, different populations, and
different theoretical and methodological orient-
22
tations.  These educational intervention  studies
focused on positive cognitive gains in disadvantaged
children and child care studies wary of possible
negative effects on social and emotional development
for the general population.23 However, in recent
years, there has been some convergence with
education and child care literatures, with both
investigating at a broader range of cognitive and
social outcomes, open to potential positive and

Vol. 27 # No. 1 # Spring 2007

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