Early Start: The Economics of Early Childhood Education

Fitzpatrick, Maria Donovan , Department of Economics, University of Virginia
Turner, Sarah, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Three states recently introduced Universal Pre-Kindergarten programs offering free preschool to all age-eligible children; policy makers in many other states are promoting similar policies. How their availability affects outcomes for children and the behavior of parents informs central economics questions related to labor supply and the effect of resources on attainment.

In Chapter 1, I focus on the effects of such programs on children's academic progress. To estimate the intention-to-treat effects of these programs on the long-term educational achievement of children, I use a differences-in-differences framework and data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Gains are concentrated among low-income children living in rural areas.

In Chapter 2, I present a theoretical model in which mothers optimize over consumption, leisure and child care quality; the predictions of the model are ambiguous. Using restricted-access data from the Census, together with age eligibility cutoffs, I employ a regression discontinuity framework to estimate the effects of the program. While it increases preschool enrollment by 12 to 15 percent, the largest effects are for children of women living in rural areas and those with less than a Bachelor's Degree. Universal Pre-Kindergarten availability has little effect on the labor supply of most women.

While I find little effect of Universal Pre-Kindergarten on maternal labor supply, previous work has shown at least some mothers were affected by the introduction of kindergarten (Cascio 2006, Gelbach 2002). In Chapter 3 I investigate the extent to which the difference in results reflects a secular shift in patterns of maternal labor supply or the effects of different methodological approaches. The results call into question our ability to extrapolate from data across time.

The combination of results of the final two chapters- an increase in preschool enrollment coupled with little change in labor supply - signals that the return to the government's investment in Universal Pre-Kindergarten should be measured by its effects on child outcomes. The results of the first chapter suggest that the benefits of Universal Pre-Kindergarten are not universal and leaves open the question of whether scare economic resources might better be spent on subgroups of the population.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
pre-kindergarten programs, academic progress, economics
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: