Pre-School for All: 28 Years Late

For Israel, the huge potential of those 28 years in building young minds has been lost forever.

Women on see-saw with child 390 (photo credit: illustrative photo/Reuters)
Women on see-saw with child 390
(photo credit: illustrative photo/Reuters)
A long string of Israeli governments gave new meaning to the old Latin proverb, “Better late than never.” In 1984, the Knesset passed the Compulsory Education Act authorizing free pre-school for all three- and four-year-olds. Yet several generations of Finance Ministry officials blocked the full implementation of the 1984 law, on the grounds that the program was too expensive.
Another effort was made in 1999, with an amendment specifically authorizing free pre-school for three- and four-year-olds.
Again, the Finance Ministry blocked it. In 2007, a blue-ribbon committee led by world-famous early childhood education expert Prof. Pnina Klein, of Bar- Ilan University, again recommended free pre-school. And last year, the Trajtenberg Committee on Social Justice strongly recommended implementing the 1984 legislation.
Now, nearly 28 years and nine prime ministers later (Peres, Shamir, Rabin, Peres again, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu again), on January 8 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet voted 21 to 8 to implement free pre-school for all. The total cost is 2.5 billion shekels ($658 m.), paid for in part by a four percent across-the-board cut in all ministries’ budgets. The eight ‘no’ votes came from the four Jewish Home party ministers and the four Independence ministers. The latter group, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, are defectors from the Labor Party, and have turned their backs on those who voted for them.
I am deeply angry about this near threedecade delay. Failure to implement a law passed by the Knesset is a knife in the back of the democratic process. Moreover, it is an insult to the discipline, economics, in which many Finance Ministry officials hold graduate degrees. The evidence is overwhelming that few, if any, social spending programs match the high return that investing in young children provides.
In a study just published in the journal “American Psychologist” (January 2012), a team of seven psychologists led by University of Michigan Professor Richard Nisbett reported on a “12-point to 18-point increase in IQ when children are adopted from working-class to middle-class homes.” No one, of course, suggests such adoptions as policy. Why not instead offer working-class kids the quality education, including pre-school that middle-class families tend to offer? Isn’t making our children significantly smarter the best possible investment? What anti-poverty policy is wiser and more just than properly caring for children so mothers can work, without the crippling cost of child care?
University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics in 2000 for his pioneering innovations in data analysis, has shown that a quality American pre-school, the Perry Preschool Program, costs $16,514 per child and returned total benefits of $144,345 – a benefit-cost ratio of eight to one. No other social investment I know comes close. He wrote in "Science" magazine (2006) that “investing in disadvantaged young children is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and, at the same time, promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large”.
Besides being 28 years late, the government seems hopelessly unrealistic about the time needed to implement its plan. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) said work would start soon on building 1,500 new preschools, at a cost of 1.3 b. shekels, and then another 1,000 over the next four years. But Union of Local Authorities Chairman Shlomo Buchbut was critical. “You can’t build 1,500 preschools in eight months,” he told the business daily “The Marker.” “There’s no chance of building even one hundred by September.”
And, of course, there is the issue of preschool teachers. Where will the Education Ministry find several thousand new ones, capable of providing tots with quality preschool? For a project of this scope, you cannot wave a magic wand. That is why the government decision raises suspicions of creating some empty political theater.
I understand the Ministry of Education plans to give priority to preschools in the north. Half of the children in northern Israel are defined as ‘poor,’ which means they already receive free education from age three, though much of it is not high-quality.
Will we hear from the ministry that the program in the north is a huge success, a year from now, when in fact half the children already are in free preschools? Will we see a significant boost in the prevailing quality of pre-school education, not just in the quantity? And how will this be measured? When will our political leaders engage in what nearly all business leaders do regularly – discover what comprises ‘best practice’ in other countries and adapt it to Israeli needs and means? In Sweden, all children have long been entitled to government- funded child care and pre-school. A carefully designed program supports child development, education and well-being, while helping parents balance parenthood with employment and study.
Finland has had free universal high-quality daycare and pre-school for children aged eight months to five years since 1990. For tots aged three to six, three adults (a teacher and two helpers) are assigned to every 20 children. Finnish child development expert Eeva Hujala noted what has been known for years that “90 percent of brain growth occurs during the first five years of life, and 85 percent of nerve paths develop before starting school.” Pre-school is a time of enormous potential for learning. A young mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. For Israel, the huge potential of those 28 years in building young minds has been lost forever.
Finland ranked near the top in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tables for reading, math and science among high school students. Sweden, too, is in the top 20. Israel ranked 37th, far behind Hungary, Portugal, Latvia and Greece. Apparently Finnish and Swedish kids get a head start when they are only three or four years old, and it helps.
And speaking of Head Start, the American program for disadvantaged three- and four-year -olds launched in 1965 under president Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision, the evidence is powerful. A survey by American psychologist Lois-Ellin Datta showed those who attended Head Start were more likely to finish high school and attend college, had higher earnings, and for African-Americans, were less likely to be charged with a crime. Moreover, Datta found that younger siblings benefit when older siblings attend Head Start.
There is a downside, though, learned from Head Start – the socalled Head Start Fade. Large initial impacts fade as quickly as second or third grade, unless grade schools are high quality. For Israel, then, it is not enough just to offer free preschool. The quality of education must be sharply upgraded throughout school and college. The cost is very high. The cost of not doing this is much higher. And we cannot wait another 28 years.
The writer is senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.