Even after Malik Johnson turned four years old, he would scream, trying desperately to communicate despite his speech delay.

His mother, Jennifer Emelogu, a former English teacher, knew he wouldn’t be ready for kindergarten.

So Emelogu transferred Malik from his daycare to Pre-K 4 SA, San Antonio’s grassroots model for high-quality early childhood education. Funded through a ⅛-cent local sales tax, the program has become a point of pride for the Texas city – a place where students and parents can actually get the support they need.

“Every school in the world could take a page out of Pre-K 4 SA’s book. For real,” Emelogu said. “There’s no kid that fell through the cracks here.”

By the end of last academic year, Malik had learned how to calm himself down and his speech therapist felt certain he was prepared for elementary school.

“I’ve seen so much progress,” Emelogu said.

Jennifer Emelogu with her son Malik.
Jennifer Emelogu with her son Malik. Photograph: Ilana Panich-Linsman/The Guardian

Now, through the Build Back Better agenda, Joe Biden wants to give every three- and four-year-old in the United States access to high-quality early childhood education like Pre-K 4 SA. The plan would save the average family thousands each year on childcare, while making good preschool available to millions more kids.

When Biden announced his trimmed-down Build Back Better framework late last month, universal Pre-K was still a prominent feature, even after the administration cut its original $3.5tn wishlist to $1.75tn. But the bill still faces an uncertain future in Congress, where conservative and progressive Democrats have been sparring over which social programs to preserve.

Free, universal preschool could radically reform the country’s status quo, where high-quality early childhood education is a luxury, not a right. For many families, childcare – sometimes as costly as college tuition – has become a formidable barrier to career growth and economic stability.

Some parents are spending most if not all of their earnings on daycare or preschool. Others have dropped out of the workforce to become full-time caregivers.

“The fact is, today, only about half of three- and four-year-olds in America are enrolled in early childhood education,” Biden said last month. “In Germany, France, and the UK, even Latvia, the number of children in those countries enrolled is 90% – 90%.”

In fact, the US trails much of the world in enrollment in pre-primary education, even though there’s clear evidence that high-quality programs pay off. Their rates of return often mirror or exceed stock market returns, especially among less privileged children.

Possible benefits of good quality early childhood education are far-reaching, including, but not limited to, better health, higher incomes and less crime.

“If the United States is gonna be competitive economically around the world in the years to come, it’s absolutely essential that we invest in universal Pre-K and get our young people off to a much better start in their educational journey. So it’s a pressing need,” said Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who spearheaded Pre-K 4 SA.

Universal Pre-K is wildly popular as a policy, with recent polling showing that as many as 73% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats support free preschool for three- and four-year-olds. It’s also nothing new: in the 1970s, Congress almost made childcare an entitlement, and in the intervening decades prominent politicians including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have championed the cause.

Under Biden, the White House is staffed by top experts like the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, long an outspoken advocate for how high-quality early learning can bridge socioeconomic and educational disparities.

“It’s a policy that we should really focus on ensuring that there is high-quality provision, and we should really ensure that, you know, the access is given to those who stand to benefit the most,” said Parag Pathak, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

‘We aimed very high’

In San Antonio, Pre-K 4 SA is a stunning example of the difference preschool can make.

Since the initiative launched in 2013, it has expanded to four campuses and serves 2,000 four-year-olds a year, while also providing professional development and competitive grants to promote quality early education throughout the city.

“We aimed very high. Our goal was to be better than the best programs in the state and the country,” Castro said.

Students learn through play, empowered with problem-solving techniques. They find solutions when conflicts arise, learn practical skills like following recipes, and plant seeds that grow into sunflowers taller than their own teachers.

They also give back to their community, creating San Antonio-inspired art for auction. Proceeds go to a local non-profit the kids choose during elections in the fall – a tradition that teaches them the importance of voting.

“You’re four years old, but there are so many things that you can do,” said Jessica Cruz, a master teacher. “And I think just giving them that sense of confidence, like, ‘I can do things. Even though I’m small, I still have a voice.’”

Jessica Cruz hugs her student goodbye on the last day of school.
Jessica Cruz hugs her student goodbye on the last day of school. Photograph: Ilana Panich-Linsman/The Guardian

An impact study on the initiative’s first cohort found that alumni had better attendance records than their peers and didn’t need to repeat grades between kindergarten and second grade. By third grade, reading and math scores eclipsed the state average.

“It’s not that the kids aren’t capable. It’s not that the families aren’t capable. When they have access to highly skilled teachers, evidence-based curriculum and all the supports, the success speaks for itself,” said Sarah Baray, Pre-K 4 SA’s CEO.

Done right, early childhood education “sets children up for success throughout life”, she said.

“When we invest in the people of the community, that has exponential potential to benefit not just that child, not just that family, but the entire community. And that’s how we build a strong future.”

‘Parents are left scrambling’

Briana Saussy and her husband could be saving thousands more a year for their three-year-old’s college fund if they didn’t have to spend so much on part-time childcare.

The couple has intentionally shaped their life in San Antonio so they can be present for their kids’ early years. Both work from home – Saussy as an author, her husband as a freelance teacher – and their younger son goes to preschool just three times a week.

They still pay more than $600 a month to a local children’s center, rates that climb higher if their little boy ever needs to go in early one morning or attend a few extra days.

Living on their children’s schedule also carries a cost: less publicity for Saussy’s books, fewer classes picked up by her husband.

“For us, that was a choice that we were happy to make. But I would be very resentful if it wasn’t a choice … and I had to have him home because I couldn’t afford it,” Saussy said.

Parents across the country are constantly having to weigh options, which affect their careers, incomes and financial wellbeing. In Mesa, Arizona, Cinthia Alaniz and her husband work full-time. They pay for their four-year-old twins’ daycare through state assistance, plus the money they are getting from the child tax credit.

“If we weren’t getting that, we would have to reconsider our whole entire situation,” Alaniz said.

When Alaniz found out she was pregnant with twins, she stopped working. With three older kids, some of whom would have also needed childcare, it made more sense for their family to live on a single income than for her entire wage to go toward daycare.

Alaniz went back to work in 2019, while her mother and mother-in-law looked after the twins. If both caretakers were too busy, Alaniz switched around her schedule or brought the toddlers to work, which made it difficult to get much done.

Then, she found a role as a family support specialist at an elementary school, where she’s on the same schedule as her school-aged children. But she worries that if she gets a raise or her husband starts working more, they’ll no longer qualify for assistance – a devastating prospect when twins effectively mean double the childcare costs.

“I would have to stop working until they were ready for kindergarten, and we would just be back in the boat that we were in before, where we would just be managing off of one income for a family of seven,” Alaniz said.

For parents, universal pre-k begins to resolve these non-choices. Alaniz wouldn’t have to worry about giving up her career because of childcare costs, while her twins would be guaranteed a free, high-quality education. And Saussy would find more flexibility helpful, even if she still wanted her son at home a few days a week.

“Parents are left scrambling to try to figure out, like, what to do, and how to afford what seems like the best options,” Saussy said. “And I think programs like Pre-K 4 SA are filling a very needed gap.

“I think that if we can have more of that – and more options and more choices for parents – that’s always a benefit.”

‘Excellence on the cheap’

While “universal” has a nice ring to it, the truth is the most affluent families already have access to pre-k, tutors, and at-home care.

But “the real fear that people have is that if it’s targeted, it’s stigmatizing,” explained James J Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

“Making it universal makes it less stigmatizing,” he said, even though “it’s a strictly political criteria”.

Ultimately, the kids who consistently get the most out of accessible early childhood education are the ones who start at a disadvantage, Heckman said. In Pre-K 4 SA’s first cohort, for example, those who were economically underprivileged or limited English proficient benefited the most.

Although Pre-K 4 SA is still a relatively young initiative with limited data, research on other high-quality programs reveals even longer-term positive effects for children and their parents, including on high school graduation, blood pressure, drug use, employment and income.

Those benefits trickle down to the community through a reduction in crime and social spending, and an increase in productivity, Heckman’s work shows.

“Compared to the cost of other things the federal government is doing,” Castro said, “this is excellence on the cheap.”

‘Beyond our wildest dreams’

For Pre-K 4 SA, the federal government’s unprecedented commitment to preschool would be “miraculous,” Baray said.

It would provide an opportunity to “expand far beyond our wildest dreams”, not by opening new learning centers on every corner, but by supporting other programs with teacher training, materials and curriculum.

“If the funding came in through this federal initiative, oh my gosh, we’d be ready to go,” Baray said. “We’ve got the infrastructure to do it, to expand tomorrow. It’s really a matter of funding issues.”

As more seats in other programs open up to four-year-olds, Pre-K 4 SA also hopes to expand its programming to three-year-olds so educators can deepen their relationships with the families they serve.

“One year, and they’re gone. It just seems so fast. They’re out the door. And they change so much within that one year,” said Tonda Brown, director of one of the education centers.

“I can only imagine what they’ll gain in two years.”

Last May, for the end of the school year, Pre-K 4 SA’s students gathered and danced outside in the Texas heat. All the kids seemed happy to be there – and sad to leave. One stopped crying only to take a student-teacher photo.

Proud parents drove up one by one for a parade, their cars decked out to celebrate all their children’s accomplishments.

“I really do feel that our families feel it when they leave,” Brown said. “Their child’s been loved on, and they’ve gotten all the things that they’re gonna need.”