Fundholder Favorite: Preschool Advantage

May 16, 2019

When Rachel was three years old, her family was left struggling financially after her mother faced a catastrophic health situation. Preschool Advantage, a non-profit established in 1995 that provides tuition for children to attend a quality preschool, stepped in to pay for Rachel to attend. She benefited from the learning experiences at preschool but also the environment provided her a sense of normalcy and routine at a challenging time, and had a positive impact on her as well as her whole family. She went on to graduate from college and is now working in New York.

The story is one Preschool Advantage repeats again and again, and it is why the Morris County-based nonprofit is one our fundholders’ favorites.

Research shows that a quality preschool is important for every child because it helps build a strong foundation for future learning and success. By the age of three, children from lower income families are often already developmentally behind their more affluent peers. The first studies to test the impact of preschool on low-income families were conducted in the 1960’s, providing high-quality preschool education to three- and four-year-old African-American children living in poverty, assessed to be at high risk for school failure. This study followed the participants after preschool and throughout their lives and it was the first study to positively establish the lasting value of early childhood education. A 2009 review of this study estimated that for each $1 invested in early education there was a return of between $7 and $12.

Nobel prize winning economist, Dr. James J. Heckman believes that educational equity is not only a social justice imperative but also an economic one. He further explains that a capable and productive workforce that is able to compete successfully in the global economy can only result if resources are provided to disadvantaged children and their families, saying, “undeveloped human potential is a burden on the economy”.

In fact, most studies have shown a return on investment of the order of 7% to 10% largely as a result of the broader impact of early education. The work of experts at the New Jersey based National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) shows that children who attend a high quality preschool enter kindergarten with better pre-reading and math skills. The benefit, however, is not limited just to kindergarten readiness, though that is significant, but that there are also benefits to the community at large in terms of future cost savings and higher earning potential.

Children who attend preschool are much less likely to need expensive interventions later in life such as special education or remedial classes. They may not need to repeat a grade to catch up. Other social issues such as early parenthood and incarceration that can put an additional burden on government and society may be averted. Further, with their child in preschool, parents may increase their income by expanding employment hours previously spent caring for young children.

Early education plays a major role in shaping children into future citizens. While the development of the child’s cognitive ability is clear, the development of his or her character or personality traits is critical as well. Cognitive ability, measured by scholastic achievement tests is predictive of schooling, wages, participation in crime, health and, success in many facets of life. However, a child’s character is also a powerful predictor of these same outcomes. Perseverance, motivation, self-esteem, self-control, conscientiousness, and forward-thinking behaviors are all learned in the early years of life. Dr. Heckman says that the development of cognitive skills and character built in these early years ultimately determines the future social and economic status of an individual. Therefore, just focusing on preschool’s impact on academic results misses the broader role early education plays in helping children become productive and contributing members of society.

While the importance of preschool education has never been clearer, the opportunity for all children to attend one remains an issue. Head Start, the federally funded program, was designed for families living below the poverty line, and is a comprehensive early education program that also focuses on meeting the families’ emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs. Head Start and other state and local funds help very low-income disadvantaged families with preschool, but still leave out a large number of families who may exceed the minimum income criteria.

In New Jersey, with its high cost of living, many families whose income is above the minimum for government financial support are still unable to cover their day-to-day expenses. United Way estimates that a family of four needs $81,500 to survive in Morris County. This is before adding in costs for preschool. In Morristown, over 30% of families are living below this estimated ‘survival income’ level. The tuition at preschools is too high for these families discouraging them from even applying. Preschool Advantage serves many of these ‘gap’ families by paying for these children to attend preschool.

Since his election as New Jersey Governor, Phil Murphy has made public pre-k a priority. In his first state budget he provided $88 million funding for pre-k expansion, to be distributed to towns in New Jersey based on the number of low-income students in a school district. However, this limits the number of school districts eligible to apply for the funding, and, even when a district receives expansion funding they are not typically able to serve every three- and four-year-old in their district. Therefore, while public pre-k is a step in the right direction, there are many children needing quality preschool in our communities who have no option for public assistance

Preschool Advantage serves families who do not qualify for any public programs, or do not live in a town with public pre-k, and cannot afford the high cost of preschool education. It serves families facing a crisis, such as Rachel’s family described above, who may have had their financial resources drained by a medical emergency or an unforeseen personal disaster. It can serve families who are eligible for public assistance programs but unable to get into them because of high demand or geographical challenges, leaving them no options. Preschool Advantages addresses the needs of these many kinds of families, all struggling to make ends meet and for whom preschool is a luxury they cannot afford.

Since 1995 Preschool Advantage has provided some 1,500 tuitions, made possible through funds from private donors and foundations. In 2018, Preschool Advantage placed 85 children in 25 preschools in Morris and Somerset counties that it has thoroughly vetted for quality. So far in 2019, Preschool Advantage has already offered spots to over 100 students for the school year beginning in September. As Dr. Heckman says, “Everyone gains when we invest, develop and sustain the early development of America’s greatest natural resource – it’s people.”