Opinion: Universal Pre-K is not a panacea for Delaware’s education problems

Universal Pre-K, a state-funded prekindergarten program for all children, is not a panacea for Delaware’s education problems.

I have dedicated my career to early childhood education. For 45 years, 30 of which as the Executive Director for New Castle County Head Start, Inc. (NCCHS), I have seen firsthand the numerous benefits and the critical need for early education. As Delaware, like many other states and cities, builds the case for Universal Pre-K, I feel compelled to respond.

NCCHS is a federally funded comprehensive early childhood program devoted to promoting the school readiness of children from low-income families in New Castle County, Delaware. NCCHS Early Head Start program provides weekly child-focused home visits for pregnant women and children ages birth to three years. NCCHS part-day and full-day programs provide center-based early education services for children ages three to five years. The agency provides excellence in early childhood education and supportive services to help families achieve self-sufficiency. Head Start embraces diversity and welcomes children and families of all backgrounds and abilities including those with special needs.

Many politicians have seen campaign success with advocating for Universal Pre-K. After all, who doesn’t want to have our children well-educated? The truth is the research does not support the tax burden of publicly funded prekindergarten for all.

Research shows children who benefit most from high-quality publicly funded prekindergarten are those from families with financial challenges, children with learning disabilities, homeless children and foster children. In fact, the data estimates that every $1 invested in helping low-income children access high-quality early learning programs yields up to $16 in societal benefits.

Studies also show that children from middle- and upper-income homes benefit little from prekindergarten. These children are exposed to stimulating home environments and benefit from higher parent engagement in learning experiences. Community-based early education centers are getting the job done for these children.

Universal Pre-K supporters use decades of research studies that show the success of high-quality prekindergarten for at-risk children to build the case for state-funded prekindergarten for all. The findings of the High/Scope Perry Preschool study, a landmark study to evaluate the long-term positive effects of quality early education, apply only to children served by these programs who are reasonably similar to children living in poverty or other- wise at risk of school failure.

I am alarmed that early childhood advocates use studies, such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool study, to justify Universal Pre-K for all. This is simply inaccurate information that is misleading the public. The data does not translate to justify the cost of expanding prekindergarten for all.

When priorities shift to creating a state-funded prekindergarten system, children who need and benefit most from a quality early education will suffer. State funding shortfalls, such as the 2018 funding freeze for Delaware Stars for Early Success, undermine the quality and effectiveness of existing programs.

“In a “universal” program, once budgets get tight, the ones shunted aside are usually those who need help the most: low-income children and parents,” comments Chris Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and a former president of the Virginia State Board of Education.

I believe Delaware should improve funding and services for at-risk populations before expanding services to a larger population. Delaware’s Purchase of Care program, which helps low-income families pay for childcare for children from infancy to age 13, generally only covers 50% of childcare costs that average $10,759 per year. At NCCHS, we do not see an under-served population of disadvantaged and low-income families in Delaware. Rather, we see these families struggle due to limited funding for existing support programs.

Delaware stands to lose federal dollars by implementing Universal Pre-K, resulting in a higher tax burden to state taxpayers. Turning the state’s 4-year-olds over to the school districts, which is what Universal Pre-K will become regardless of what supporters say, will result in the loss of federal revenue from early education grants due to declining enrollment, and will put many community-based child care programs in jeopardy. The hard-working community-based childcare programs that are currently supporting state-funded Universal Pre-K are placing their programs at risk.

Universal Pre-K is not the answer. The cost-benefit analysis does not justify the burden to Delaware’s taxpayers. The early childhood community and Delaware residents need to challenge the Universal Pre-K proposal and not be fooled into making an unwise investment. Instead of expanding services, Delaware should fully fund existing programs for at-risk children where research shows the greatest return on investment for our tax dollars.

Jeffrey Benatti serves as Executive Director of NCCHS. He was appointed as an original member of the governor’s Early Care and Education Council and is a past board member for Read Aloud Delaware and Latin American Community Center. During his career, he has participated in numerous committees and focus groups for Delaware Childcare Licensing Committee, Head Start Collaboration Project, United Way and Delaware Stars for Early Success. Benatti received a bachelor’s degree in child development from Temple University, completed graduate work in nonprofit management at the University of Delaware and participated in a management fellow program at the University of California at Los Angeles.

His views are his own and do not reflect the majority opinion of The Review’s staff. Jeffrey Benatti may be contacted at (302) 452-1500.