Universal preschool in the District has helped boost the maternal labor force. (Courtesy of CAP)
Universal preschool in the District has helped boost the maternal labor force. (Courtesy of CAP)

In 2009, the District began offering two years of universal, full-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds.

A new report from the Center for American Progress that examined the effects the program has had on boosting maternal labor force participation found that the city’s participation rate has increased by about 12 percentage points.

The report also showed that 10 percent of the increase could be attributed to preschool expansion — which represents a larger boost to maternal labor force participation than the gains realized in countries with robust early education programs.

“District of Columbia mothers with young children now participate in the labor force at about the same rate as District mothers whose children are in elementary school,” the report said.

Maternal labor force participation increased among both low-income families and high-income families. However, the greatest gains were made among unmarried mothers, mothers without a high school degree, mothers living in poverty and black mothers, the report noted.

Also, women with young children also saw large increases in employment, with boosts to full-time work for married women and part-time work for unmarried women.

“Many have documented the benefits of early childhood education on school readiness and healthy child development, but this report shows that expanding access to these programs can also improve maternal labor force participation, narrow gender wealth disparities, and promote economic growth,” Rasheed Malik, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, wrote in response to the report.

The report comes on the heels of new polling that found nearly eight in 10 voters support increasing funding for quality, affordable child care or other early childhood education programs.

Expansion to universal preschool began in September 2009, and the District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education was required to expand preschool each year to accommodate a minimum of 15 percent of the unserved children until preschool programs were available to all children of preschool age whose parents chose to participate.

In just a few years, the city increased the share of 4-year-olds enrolled in public preschool from about 50 percent to near universal availability and participation, according to the report.

Among 3-year-olds, the city doubled public preschool enrollment from 33 percent to 66 percent. By 2016, approximately 77 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds in the District were enrolled in preschool.

Crucially, the city funds programs using the same funding formula as grades K-12, so that providers all operate five days per week for a minimum of 6.5 hours per day and 180 instructional days per year, Malik said.

“This means that parents are still responsible for covering for aftercare and summer child care, though most schools offer these services for a fee,” he said.

In 2017, the District spent $222 million on public preschool, or about $17,000 per child enrolled.

By comparison, the state of Georgia spent about $4,000 per child enrolled in its universal preschool program, according to the report.

This is largely because the District pays preschool teachers the same as elementary school teachers while some Georgia programs are only half-day.

The report concluded that the two years of free, high-quality preschool that the District offers have resulted in the city boasting the highest maternal labor force participation rate in the nation.

The District’s universal preschool program has been good for significant numbers of women and their families, but it has also made the city an even more attractive place to live for those who can afford its high cost of living, the authors said.

And because of various factors that drive demographic change and gentrification, increases in the District’s maternal labor supply have not all gone to those most in need of more income.

Instead, gains have gone to families at both ends of the income spectrum, with those mothers in families at or below the poverty level and those mothers in families earning more than 500 percent of the poverty level experiencing the biggest maternal labor force participation rate increases.

“In the absence of a national policy solution, many cities are investing more in early learning programs as a way to prepare children for school and to ease the child care burden on working families,” Malik said. “The District of Columbia’s ambitious universal preschool program certainly provides strong evidence that two years of free, high-quality child care allows many more women to participate in the labor force.”

To view the full report, go to https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2018/09/26/458208/effects-universal-preschool-washington-d-c.

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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