April 13, 2024
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Quality Preschool Education Is Essential

Vibrant Jewish early childhood centers are at the heart of our educational institutions.

“The world only exists because of the breath of preschoolers.” – (Talmud Shabbat 119b).

Congress wants to allocate $400 billion over a period of six years for early childhood education. Federally funded childcare has the potential of providing lifelong benefits for young children and their families, but a lot depends on how the programs are designed. The proposal, part of the safety net spending bill, will make financial support for childcare for all children ages 3 and 4 practically universal and free. It is hoped that it will be extended after six years.

Similar ideas have been tried in Massachusetts, New York City, Oklahoma and Georgia to assist families with childcare. It is crucial that money is spent on those programs that have been studied and shown to be effective. We have the research about what works and what doesn’t. The key takeaway is that high-quality preschool tends to benefit children into adulthood.

Although this bill is aimed primarily at public schools, some funding will trickle down to day schools. The benefits of preschool manifest themselves in different ways. Achievement test scores usually do not last past early elementary school. However, other metrics, such as success in high school, and not repeating grades, do. Research reveals a benefit in social-emotional skills. Pre-K graduates show better self-control and are less likely to be suspended or reprimanded. The impact is greater for boys who are more responsive to early interventions.

The data is less clear about child care for infants and toddlers. Some research shows that tots can thrive in high-quality programs. Other studies indicate that attending center-based care before age 2 is associated with worse social skills or other behavior problems.

Obviously the benefits come only when programs are of high quality. Otherwise, they can do more harm than good. Children of working parents who receive low-quality childcare often display deficiencies in reading, math skills, behavior, emotional problems, physical aggression and decreased social skills. Quality is defined by having a research-based curriculum, stimulating spaces and materials, in-service education and coaching for teachers and small group sizes. The research indicates that the most important factor is how the teachers interact with children—whether they are on the floor playing with them, using rich language, teaching problem-solving techniques or providing emotional support.

The bill in Congress includes quality thresholds. It also has grants that include teacher training and building improvements. However, requiring quality doesn’t guarantee it. Achieving high quality nationwide, across new and existing preschools, is a huge challenge. The first way to improve quality is to pay teachers more. Child care is one of the worst-paid professions in the country. [See Jewish Link article “Salaries and Benefits of Jewish Educators,” October 21, 2021] The bill says that states must use the subsidies to pay child care workers and pre-K teachers “a living wage” (although it does not specify what that is), and one that is equivalent to that of an elementary teacher with the same degree. As Liz Gebert, director of KinderPlace at the Stamford JCC in Connecticut, suggests: “People should be embarrassed that “living wage” is the goal. Living wage means you aren’t homeless and you aren’t hungry, but you can’t be your best self when you are working three jobs and wondering how you are going to pay your electric bill. We should be striving for a “living beautifully wage.”

We are fortunate that our early childhood educators are genuinely committed to their work and their students, but that should not come at the expense of a full and meaningful life. Build Back Better funding will allow our early childhood centers to recruit and retain qualified personnel, not only by increasing their salaries but also by helping us give them the kavod they deserve for their dedication to teaching young children. Analysts say it’s hard to know whether the federal subsidies will be enough, and whether states will agree to pay since states have the choice to opt out.

Research has shown that pre-K may have smaller benefits for children from high income families, but middle-class children still show improvements. It costs child care centers more to take care of infants and toddlers than those 3 and 4. Offering pre-K without subsidizing those younger children can end up diverting money from child-care centers. Those centers might then not be able to care for as many younger children. The Democrats’ plan addresses this in part by allowing childcare centers to serve both preschoolers and those younger, so they don’t lose the funds that come with those 3 and 4. A bigger risk, researchers said, is that if the program is not extended after it expires in six years, childcare programs could be left without the money to support the changes already made.

With passage of the Build Back Better Act potentially on the horizon, we see the possibility that our highest-held values will be fulfilled, that our children, educators and families will be guaranteed the dignity and respect they deserve and to which they are entitled. This possibility, decades overdue, will positively affect Jewish early childhood education for generations to come.


Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish day school educator, administrator, innovator and consultant.

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