As election season rolls around again, there has been increasing debate over the value of subsidized pre-kindergarten (pre-K) education. Much of the discussion is centered around the question of whether pre-K “works,” whether it effectively prepares students for success in kindergarten and beyond. Recently, The New York Times ran an op-ed analyzing the results of free pre-K in Tennessee and Boston. In Tennessee, kids enrolled in pre-K started kindergarten more prepared, but these gains were gone by the end of the year. However, a randomized study in Boston showed that kids in pre-K gained up to seven months of progress in reading and math, and those gains were still there at the end of the third grade. The difference likely has to do with the coherence of Boston’s pre-K programs compared to Tennessee’s.
Another much-debated aspect of free pre-K is its impact on mothers. Having a child is often detrimental to a woman’s career, either because it negatively influences how she is perceived at work, or because it takes her out of the job market entirely, as daycare costs force her to stay home and care for the child. In a 2010 paper, researcher Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick analyzes the results of two universal pre-K programs to see if they led to mothers returning to work.
Fitzpatrick studied pre‐K programs in Georgia and Oklahoma. These programs gave parents with age-eligible children direct subsidies to use at childcare centers, regardless of family income. The programs were voluntary and free, and the subsidies could be used at public schools, private child-care centers, and non-profit centers, with both full-day and half-day hours.
First, Fitzpatrick found that subsidized pre-K does increase preschool enrollment: In her analysis, the enrollment of four-year-olds grew by 14% to 17% across the state, with the largest effect found in rural areas.
However, Fitzpatrick found that universal pre-K did not actually cause any statistically significant increase in the number of women returning to work, even when adjusted for hours or weeks worked, or when public assistance was taken into account.
Fitzpatrick’s analysis comes as a surprise, because it contradicts earlier papers that suggest subsidized pre-K did have a positive effect. One paper from 2009 suggested that employment of single mothers with one five-year-old increased 12% after subsidies, another that employment of single mothers whose youngest kid was five was 7% higher if the child went to kindergarten.
Fitzpatrick theorizes that her results may differ from previous studies because the population of working women has changed since data was collected 20 to 40 years ago. She also suggests that the higher rates of women in the workforce in general may mean that the group of mothers that the subsidy would have helped is now smaller than it used to be.