Among scientists and educators, there’s widespread agreement that early childhood development is essential for youngsters’ long-term well-being. In the U.S., politicians have taken notice. More than half of the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination are advocating universal, federally funded preschool for children under 5.

The political appeal of “Pre-K for all” is obvious, but the benefits aren’t. A rush to universal pre-kindergarten risks creating a vast new entitlement that mostly subsidizes upper-income families. The goal should instead be getting more poor kids into high-quality programs.

It’s true that the U.S. lags far behind other rich countries in preschool enrollment. Only about 66% of 3- to 5-year-olds receive some form of early-childhood schooling, the sixth-lowest figure out of 37 countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 13 countries, including Germany and the U.K., participation rates top 90 percent.

But previous attempts in the U.S. to offer free universal pre-K have yielded uneven results. Most notably, the beneficiaries of such programs overwhelmingly tend to be poor and minority children; higher-income and white students derive little to no benefits from them.

Students in Tennessee’s state-run pre-K program, for instance, did better at the start of kindergarten than students who did not enroll. African Americans and boys showed some sustained improvements in school attendance and classroom behavior, but the overall academic benefits soon faded. In Georgia and Oklahoma, which offer free pre-K regardless of income, poor students who received a year of state-funded preschool had higher fourth-grade test scores than similarly disadvantaged students who did not. But students from richer families saw no gains at all.

One reason for this disparity is that most higher-income families already have access to good private preschools—and are willing to pay a premium for them. Although America’s government spending on pre-K ranks 26th out of 33 countries as a percentage of per-capita GDP, its combined public and private per-pupil spending is higher than in all but five countries. This hardly suggests that wealthy families are in urgent need of state support.

Instead, a more targeted approach would help. Under the federal Head Start program, the government spends $10 billion each year to provide early-childhood education for poorer families. But that covers just one-third of eligible kids. Congress should work with states to make up the difference, so that free, full-day preschool is available to all children in poverty.

In pursuing this goal, policy makers should be as flexible as possible. Rather than cram 4-year-olds into existing K-12 public schools, for instance, they should allow low-income parents to use vouchers to enroll their kids in privately run day-care centers, as Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarship does, so long as those centers adhere to standards set by local school districts.

Some states are already showing how it can work. A court-ordered expansion of pre-K in 31 high-poverty areas in New Jersey in the early 2000s required that local childhood education centers employ certified teachers, limit class sizes and undergo regular performance reviews. A 2017 study found that this expansion reduced the achievement gap for disadvantaged students by 15 percent if they received one year of preschool, and by as much as 40 percent if they went for two years.

As any parent knows, it’s never too early to invest in the lives of children. When it comes to preschool, the U.S. should be sure to prioritize those who need it most.

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