Universal Pre-K May Destroy the Preschool Marketplace
In the 1950s, economist Milton Friedman proposed the use of educational vouchers in public education. Under a voucher program, parents can direct public funds toward the school that best serves their child’s needs, be that public or private.
Today, more than half of all U.S. states have a private school choice program, but Missouri is not among those states.
It may be the fear of change that prevents opponents of school choice from envisioning what the current K-12 public education system would look like if replaced by a system of choice and competition.
As I found out in my search for the perfect preschool for my three-year-old son, if you want to see Friedman’s vision of a vibrant school marketplace in action, you don’t have to look much further than Missouri’s own preschool market.
In contrast to the increasingly standardized classrooms you might find in the K-12 sector, there are literally hundreds of options in early learning. This includes the Montessori approach, where children learn through their own experiences, as well as the Waldorf approach, where children are provided with a consistent routine in a homelike setting. There are language immersion preschools, religious preschools, and even preschools where children learn through nature, like the preschool program at the St. Louis Zoo.
Picking the right preschool requires consideration of a child’s strengths and weaknesses. My own son, for instance, could use some practice with early numeracy skills like counting, but he dislikes structured educational activities. For him, the play-based preschool approach is best.
Once I found a few preschools offering play-based learning in the St. Louis area, I had to find something in my price range. One of the arguments politicians often make for universal preschool or “preschool for all” is that preschool isn’t affordable for even middle-income households like mine. Therefore, they reason, it should be subsidized for everyone.
In reality, many preschools I found in the area were quite reasonably priced. When you consider that traditional public schools spend over $10,000 per student per year, the $3,500 tuition First Congregational Preschool charges begins to feel manageable.
Why the difference in costs? In the public school system, parents don’t pay for schooling directly and have little choice in where their kids go to school, so it shouldn’t surprise us when we see high costs and low quality. But in the private preschool market, competition (and picking up the tab ourselves) drives costs down.
This isn’t to say that squeezing $3,500 into an already-tight budget will be an easy feat. Obviously, it would be great to save $3,500 per year and send my son to the local school district tuition-free.
But then I remember a simple truth: making something free doesn’t make it quality. And as is the case with many parents, quality is my number one priority. Take Normandy School District: Would providing universal preschool fix the failing district’s problems? Or would it just add another grade onto an already failing school system?
Making preschool free for all could have other unintended consequences, like putting quality preschools out of business and diluting innovation in early learning with standardization and regulation.
Some policy leaders in Missouri and across the nation want to make preschool free for every child. But if we’ve learned anything from the failures of the K12 system, it's that we have to figure out how to leverage the marketplace that already exists, not destroy it. Efforts like Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarship Program, for example, offer scholarships of up to $7,500 to low-income families to help them afford preschool options. Low-income children gain access to preschool, and the marketplace is preserved—it’s a win-win solution.
I am excited to send my son to a preschool that fits his needs. If Missouri wants to give low-income families that same opportunity, universal pre-K is the not the answer.