What Israel can Teach Texas about Pre-K

By Suzie Patt Benvenisti

As a native Houstonian who now lives halfway across the world in Jerusalem, and a self-proclaimed public policy enthusiast, I find myself peeking in occasionally on what’s going on in my hometown – particularly with regard to social policy issues. I was especially excited to happen upon the 2018 Kinder Houston Area Survey conducted by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Among the many topics covered in the survey, one finding in particular stood out to me – 67 percent of Houston residents are in favor of raising local taxes in order to provide universal preschool education for all children in Houston.

Early childhood education is a topic that is very much on my mind for both personal and professional reasons. I have three young children and can see on a first-hand basis the importance of high-quality early childhood education. I also serve as director general of one of Israel’s leading socioeconomic research institutes, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, where we are engaging in more and more research on early childhood education. I am now more convinced than ever that early childhood education is a long-term investment that is critical for closing future socioeconomic gaps.

Currently, the Houston Independent School District provides full-day preschool at no fee to 4-year-olds who come from economically disadvantaged households or meet a number of other requirements (including a lack of English proficiency), and to 3-year-olds who meet the same requirements, if space allows. However, the current model is not only not universal, it’s also now facing a shortage of funds since the extra funding allocated for improving the quality of Texas pre-K programs in 2015 was discontinued in 2017 after only one budget cycle.

Here on the other side of the pond, Israel extended universal coverage to 3- and 4-year-olds under the national Compulsory Education Law fairly recently in the 2012-2013 school year, in the wake of the country’s widespread 2011 social protests. Taub Center researchers found that the law resulted in increased preschool enrollment for 3- and 4-year-olds, particularly among population groups in Israel that have some of the highest rates of child poverty. For example, enrollment increased from 68 percent to 79 percent among Israel’s Arab population within the first two years of the law’s implementation.

One of the most interesting findings about this policy was that the decrease in parental spending on care for 3- and 4-year-olds in Israel was accompanied by an increase in spending on day care for 2-year-olds. This may be due, at least partially, to the fact that parents previously paying for 3- and 4-year-olds’ education found themselves with more disposable income to use toward day care for these kids’ 2-year-old brothers and sisters. So, even though parental spending overall did not decrease drastically, the result of the policy was that many more 3- and 4-year-olds, and even many more 2-year-olds, began to benefit from early childhood education.

This is an important insight considering the emergence of research internationally showing the benefit of early education, and sufficient exposure to sensory stimuli and enriching experiences, not only for 3- and 4-year-olds but also from birth. Research shows that early childhood is a time when the brain has the most plasticity and is particularly open to change, and that disparities in educational achievements between children belonging to different socioeconomic strata already begin to appear at very young ages. Given this, it is important to challenge the conventional wisdom of tackling inequalities in education only later on through the K-12 education system.

If we wait, we are not only missing critical periods of brain development, but we are also not getting the best bang for our buck. World-renowned economist and Nobel Prize winner Professor James Heckman shows that investing money in high-quality birth- to 5-year-old education provides an even higher rate of return than traditional preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and that returns on investment are lower later on in the school system.

Following the publication of a comprehensive literature review on early childhood education here at the Taub Center, published with the support of the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, our findings suggest three key policy options for addressing inequalities that are already in evidence in early childhood: (1) substantially increasing access to day care and improving the quality of care from birth to age 5; (2) comprehensive interventions at the community level to help families overcome the challenges of poverty, specifically focused on families with young children living in poverty; and (3) addressing poverty itself more comprehensively and effectively with interventions designed to curb the prevalence of child poverty, or at least, to lessen the depth of poverty. Perhaps a similar approach can be used to reach policymakers in other places around the world, including Houston, where the recent Kinder Survey shows there is great willingness to invest in early childhood programs that can provide equal educational opportunity to all children.

Suzie Patt Benvenisti is director general of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

This op-ed was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.