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Doing the Math: The Cost of Publicly Funded ‘Universal’ Pre-K

Published:  March 14, 2013

During the media frenzy that followed President Obama’s unprecedented call for expanding pre-K to all four-year-olds in the United States, we estimated that the additional cost to states and the federal government, combined, to be somewhere between $10-15 billion per year. We estimate that the feds and the states currently spend about $9 billion on pre-K for four-year-olds.

We wanted to explain exactly how we came to that conclusion.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), there were approximately 4.1 million four-year olds in the U.S. as of July 2011.  But we shouldn’t assume that 100 percent of those 4.1 million children would participate. Even in states that provide pre-K to any family that wants it, such as Oklahoma and Florida, not all families choose to send their children, and currently about 75 percent are enrolled. Therefore, we predict approximately 75 percent of four-year olds would be enrolled nationally if pre-K were truly universal in all states. That means we are talking about funding pre-K for a little under 3.1 million four-year-olds around the country.

Next we determined a reasonable cost per child.  This, of course, varies by state. (Teacher pay will vary depending on supply and demand, not to mention cost-of-living in a particular area, for example.)  But we do know that the average per-pupil expenditure for children enrolled in Head Start in 2012 was $7,581 (excluding Early Head Start, which is for children under 3 and their mothers).  We also know that the Obama Administration appears to be aiming for a full-day (not a half-day) pre-K program, and that the average spending on a full day of instruction for K-12 students nationally is $12,442 per pupil, according to NIEER.  State-funded pre-K programs of decent quality cost $2,640 to $11,699, with the average at $6,408.* So we round up to $8,000.

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By using this formula, we conclude that it would cost $24.6 billion per year to fund a “universal” public pre-K program for all four-year-olds. However, we estimate that states and the federal government already spend about $9.24 billion on pre-K for four-years olds.

Here’s how we got to that number, which we came to through a lot of deduction, so we want to be clear that it’s only an estimate.

States spent about $5.49 billion on state-funded pre-K programs in 2011. (Some of that includes federal funding from  TANF, according to NIEER data, so it is not purely state funding).  In 2011, The federal government spent $7 billion on Head Start (excluding Early Head Start), special-education preschool services (known as IDEA Preschool within the the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and other sources.** Add 5.49 and 7, which is 12.49. Using NIEER data, we know that 74 percent of children enrolled in these publicly funded programs are four year olds. So we multiply .74*12.49 to get to the $9.24 billion number.

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So given how much is already spent on pre-K, total new costs would be closer to $15 billion.

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There are many caveats to these numbers. Three and five-year olds tend to sneak into some of these numbers on the margins. There are also other forms of funding that we may not be capturing. Lastly, simply taking the full cost of programs and multiplying them by the percentage that is four-year olds is “back-of-the-envelope.” It could cost more because there are certain fixed costs that can’t be multiplied by a percentage, or it could be less because it doesn’t account for efficiencies that are only achieved at a very large scale.

Furthermore, the numbers we are using are also closer to an ideal world of full, universal, high-quality pre-K, so we think that our estimate is on the high end. Therefore we feel comfortable estimating the additional cost to be somewhere between $10-15 billion.

What do you think about our number? Too high? Too low? Let us know.

*We define a program as “high quality” when it meets at least seven of NIEER’s ten benchmarks.

** In 2011 the federal government spent $6.3 billion on Head Start (excluding Early Head Start) and $373.4 million on IDEA 619 (preschool). We round up because some IDEA part B money probably helps fund preschool IDEA programs and there are other federal structures, such as Title I, where some of the money may go to preschool but the numbers are not broken down for us.

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