In the past few years, the debate surrounding child poverty has become increasingly centered around early childhood. As early as eighteen months of age, disparities arise in children’s vocabulary based on the income of their families. Neuro-imaging has shown that the repeated stress of living in poverty can have negative effects on a child’s developing brain.

The bottom line? Inequality begins at birth.

In the policy sphere, this discovery has translated into a push for pre-kindergarten education, with Mayor Bill de Blasio starting a universal pre-k program in New York City last fall and President Obama pushing for a nationwide universal preschool program of his own. And for good reason—the rate of return for early childhood education programs is estimated to be seven dollars for every one dollar invested, due to savings on down-the-line social costs, such as incarceration and health care. Preschool, like K-12 education, is increasingly being thought of as a public good, one that considers all children deserving of high-quality early education.


However, unlike K-12 education, the idea of equity in preschool has not garnered the same level of attention. That is, the limited number of preschool programs that do exist often isolate students by income and race, with impoverished and minority children having less access to high-quality programs (those with small class size, small teacher-to-child ratio, and qualified teachers). If preschool is to be used as a vehicle to help tackle child poverty, instituting equity among classrooms should be a bigger concern.

What Integrated Classrooms Tell Us

Greater equity in preschool is important because, as it turns out, “quality and equity are inextricably linked.” This fact is a key finding of to A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education, a report released this week by my TCF colleague Halley Potter and researchers Jeanne L. Reid and Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Michael Hilton at the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

The authors argue that segregated preschool programs are rarely of equal quality compared to integrated ones. Research has shown that a school’s socioeconomic composition is almost twice as important as a student’s own socioeconomic status in predicting their academic achievement. When looking at disparities in children’s reading levels, for example, family background contributed the most to initial disparities, but school composition was more important in predicting how children’s skills progressed during the year. Additionally, the educational achievement of children from wealthier backgrounds did not suffer from integration, and some even learned more language skills than their peers in segregated schools.

Basically, just putting rich and poor children in the same classroom can help even the playing field, without compromising the quality of education for any student. Potter, Kagan, Reid, and Hilton hypothesize that this is due to the fact that children who start with disparate skills learn from each other through daily interactions, and that teacher expectations of the entire classroom are raised.

Schools on the Ground

While integration is not a priority for many preschool policymakers, there are two schools highlighted in the report that have incorporated equity into their design. Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans enrolls both tuition-paying students and those receiving state funding in order to create a socioeconomically and racially diverse cohort. The Hartford Region Magnet School system in Connecticut has accomplished the same goal by balancing enrollment of students from both the city and the more affluent suburbs.

Evidence-based policy research is essential to keeping our democracy strong.

Both school systems have seen positive results. At Morris Jeff, only 25 percent and 10 percent of students entering in September demonstrated mastery of math and language skills, respectively. By year end, more than 80 percent of students demonstrated mastery in each subject. While there is no system-wide assessment available of Hartford Region Magnet Schools, individual schools showed promising results. For example, at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School, 84 percent of students scored proficient on their learning assessment with no discernable difference between Hartford and suburban students.

While difficult to capture in its entirety, one of the most important effects of integrated schools is the social connection created between families and children from different backgrounds. As a principal from one of Hartford’s magnet schools stated, the biggest successes are realized when “we hear that kids from Glastonbury attended a birthday party for a Hartford student. That would not have happened unless we existed.”

Poverty haunts our youngest and most underrepresented children. Forty-two percent of black children and 36 percent of Hispanic children under age five are poor. To reduce inequality in our children’s lives and provide them a better start, we must ensure that their first steps aren’t through separate and unequal school doors.