The first time I heard this big idea was in a conversation with Zell Miller, the gruff former Senator from Georgia, in the fall of 2002. His quote didn’t make our documentary, “The Promise of Preschool,” but he basically said that, if he had his way, he would get rid of 12th grade and spend the money on free, universal, high quality preschool.
At the time, Georgia was leading the nation in providing preschool, and it’s still near the top of the list.
But Georgia and every other state and territory still have 12th grade.
I am guessing that many of you read Sean Reardon’s thoughtful essay in the New York Times recently, “No Rich Child Left Behind.” If you haven’t, please do. Mr. Reardon, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, makes a strong case for large investments in early education, which, he says, are the most likely avenue to closing the ever-wider performance gaps between the rich and everyone else.
He does not argue in his essay that senior year of high school is a waste of time for most kids, so please allow me. States with exit exams generally peg them to a 10th grade level, which ought to tell you something about official expectations. Across the nation, savvy (and bored) kids are enrolling in college courses while still in high school–if their system allows. You may recall our profile of one Texas school district on the Mexican border where many students have a substantial number of college credits under their belt when they graduate high school. Some actually receive their Associates Degrees from the local community college the same day they pick up their high school diplomas!
I conclude from that story, and from the tales from students in other school districts, that a ‘business as usual’ senior year is a waste of time. Thousands of motivated kids refuse to accept that state of affairs and so enroll in college, and that’s commendable, but why not raise the bar in high school and shorten the time? If some students need a twelfth year, fine. But why bore hundreds of thousands of our youth?
So, what about former Senator Zell Miller’s idea, basically swap out the two? Is that possible? How much money do we spend on the 12th grade, and how much of that could actually be diverted to preschool?
I put the first question to Professor Reardon, who responded. “The country spends in the ballpark of $40-$50 billion per year per grade on public education. There are about 4 million students per grade in public schools, and average per student spending is somewhere north of $10,000 per pupil.” He noted that 12th graders are more expensive to educate than students in elementary school, but because of dropouts, we have fewer seniors than first and second graders. Let’s assume that the ‘higher expenses’ and ‘fewer students’ cancel each other out, so we can use his $40-50 billion number as our spending on 12th grade.
How much of that $40-50 billion could just be shifted over to preschool? That’s harder to figure, because some of the dollars (like the money spent on sports) can’t be taken from the high school budget. Remember, the team will continue playing, but with a lineup of 9th, 10th and 11th graders. The coaches still get paid, the school still needs buses to take the team to away games, and so forth.
But, back-of-the-envelope, let’s say that $30 billion would be available for preschool. If we spent it on our 4,640,000 4-year-olds, we could spend about $6,400 per child.
Is $6,400 a lot to spend per child? It certainly is, especially when you compare it to what we are now spending. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)’s recent report, we now spend $3,841 per child enrolled in early education, a decline of $442 from last year (and a drop of $1100 since 2001-02).
Because of the Sequester, things may get worse. On May 7, The Huffington Post reported, “On Tuesday, WIBW, a local CBS affiliate in Topeka, Kansas, aired a segment on how the 5-percent cut in Head Start operations was forcing officials with the organization to make dramatic choices. One program, the station reported, was considering closing a preschool class, in addition to eliminating 20 enrollment spots.”
Only 28% of 4-year-olds are in state-funded preschool programs, NIEER says. By our not providing preschool, Professor Reardon and others say that we are hurting our country’s long term chances for prosperity, not to mention short-changing a lot of our children.
States are cutting preschool spending now, but they don’t have to–if they are willing to think outside the box. They could take a great leap forward, provide free, high quality, universal preschool for all of our 4-year-olds, and rescue our 12th graders from boredom at the same time.
What’s not to like about that?