"The Returns of an Additional Year of Schooling: The Case of State-Mandated Kindergarten"

Grant: The Returns of an Additional Year of Schooling: The Case of State-Mandated Kindergarten
Funder: Economic Self-Sufficiency Policy Research Institute (ESSPRI)
PIs: Jade Marcus Jenkins & Maria Rosales-Rueda


In light of the evidence demonstrating the importance of early childhood interventions in the development of human capital, a number of recent proposals at the federal and state levels aim to expand public early childhood education (ECE) programs, with the largest allocations going towards expansions in age-4 prekindergarten (pre-k) programs; state-developed voluntary part- or full-time educational interventions. Though in most states pre-k programs target low-income children, (e.g., NJ, NC), a handful of states provide universal access to all age-eligible residents (e.g., GA, OK). Recent federal policy initiatives also push for universal access to age-4 preschool programs, which enjoys support from both legislators and voters across party lines. However, the empirical work on the returns to ECE are generated from high quality, small-scale interventions targeted to low-income children (e.g., Perry Preschool Project), and there exists limited evidence on how such a universal intervention may influence states’ investments in human capital development in the long-run. Given scarce public resources, differentiating the impact of universal versus targeted ECE interventions is a central consideration for policymakers.

We look to a similar phenomenon, the origins of, and attendance mandates for, now universal American Kindergarten programs, to shed light on how trends towards universal provision of public preschool may influence one’s long-run educational and economic outcomes. While in most states kindergarten began as a voluntary program, between 1970-2015 some states evolved to mandating kindergarten attendance. This effectively shifted the minimum school entry age from age 7 (1st grade) to age 6. Several changes in state mandatory school entrance laws across—and in some instances, within—states over time provide an opportunity to causally identify the influence of an additional year of ECE on important individual education and labor market outcomes. In this study, we will use mandatory kindergarten attendance laws to identify the impact of ECE on children’s labor market outcomes, comparing states with mandatory attendance to those with voluntary attendance. We view the impacts of mandatory kindergarten attendance on long-run outcomes as a first look at how an additional year of schooling during preschool will influence long-run outcomes, in a policy context where federal and state governments are actively considering universal preschool programs.