Is Obama’s pre-K plan worth $100 billion?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Conservatives shouldn’t dismiss out-of-hand President Obama’s universal pre- kindergarten plan. US education certainly needs all the help it can get. The White House plan will likely resemble a nearly $100 billion (over ten years) proposal fashioned by the Center for American Progress. Here are its key elements:

– The federal government would, on average, match state preschool expenditures up to $10,000 per child per year.

– This funding would allow families with children ages 3 and 4 to voluntarily send their children to a full-day (nine-hour) public preschool program or to choose a shorter-day alternative.

– Preschool would be free for children from families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

– Children from families above 200 percent of the poverty line would be charged a sliding tuition co-pay, ranging from about 30 percent of the cost to 95 percent of the cost (for families above 400 percent of the poverty line).

Why would this be a good investment of public funds? Well, the CAP study points to research of intensive pre-K education from economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman. His work suggests, CAP explains, “a very high return on investment” — perhaps as high as $13 in benefits to the general public for every $1 spent. Heckman looked at two programs, the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, that decades ago randomly assigned 200 poor kids into control and treatment groups. While the programs did not permanently raise IQs, the kids who received the enriched education had better outcomes as adults than those in the control group. They earned more, were more likely to stay off welfare, more likely to stay out of jail, and more likely to own a home.

But of course, those weren’t universal pre-K programs. They were small-scale programs targeted at low-income kids. Are the Perry and Abecedarian experiments scalable and applicable to a wider population? Grover Whitehurst of Brookings points out several caveats:

1. Perry and Abecedarian were multi-year intensive interventions whereas state pre-K programs are overwhelmingly one year programs for four-year-olds.

2. Costs per participant for Perry and Abecedarian were multiples of the levels of investment in present-day state preschool programs, e.g., $90,000 per child for Abecedarian.

3. Both Perry and Abecedarian were small hothouse programs (less than 100 participants) run by very experienced, committed teams, whereas widely deployed present day preschool programs are, well, widely deployed. The circumstances of the very poor families of the Black children who were served by these model programs 30 to 40 years ago are very different from those faced by the families that are presently served by publicly funded preschool programs. For example, nearly half of the four-year-olds in Head Start today are Hispanics, whereas there were no Hispanic children in Abecedarian or Perry.

4. And 40 years ago other government supports for low-income families were at much lower levels and pre-K was not widely available for anyone, much less the poor.

Now, we could supplement Heckman’s work by examining the results of a current-day and much broader program of childhood educational intervention, Head Start. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help CAP’s case. Researchers have found that initial positive impacts from the program don’t persist into middle childhood. Discouraging? You bet. But policymaking is supposed to be fact-based, not wish-based. Charles Murray:

Toward the end of his career, sociologist Peter Rossi, a dedicated progressive and the nation’s leading expert on social program evaluation from the 1960s through the 1980s, summarized his encyclopedic knowledge of the evaluation literature with his “metallic laws.” Rossi’s iron law was that “the expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero.” His stainless steel law was that “the better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.”

To me, the experience of early childhood intervention programs follows the familiar, discouraging pattern that led him to formulate his laws: small-scale experimental efforts staffed by highly motivated people show effects. When they are subject to well-designed large-scale replications, those promising signs attenuate and often evaporate altogether.

4 thoughts on “Is Obama’s pre-K plan worth $100 billion?

  1. You should mention that Head Start is a well-documented failure. We know this stuff does NOT work. As soon as the kids are integrated into regular classrooms (2nd, 3rd grade, etc.), the effects disappear with the result that there is no measurable long term effect, other than an empty checkbook.

    The known difference between success and failure in schools is the involvement of parents. If a child has no identifiable father at home, the chances of the child’s success are very, very low. So take the $100 billion USD and launch of program to: 1) convince girls not to have babies before they get married, 2) convince young men that they have an obligation to get a job before they start fathering babies.

    Of course you also have to cancel the existing programs that pay unwed mothers to have babies.

  2. The ineffectiveness of Head Start is well documented. Expanding Pre-K programs is a waste of money. Let’s focus on improving middle school, high school and secondary education while lowering costs.

    Oh, and can we please stop using meaningless “10 year budget” terminology? This is a $10 billion per year proposal, not $100 billion over ten years. We’ll never get our fiscal house in order unless we start changing the language.

  3. It is certainly true that mass implementation of social policy is a prelude to disappointment. (Laughed out loud to read a supplysider expounding on the mistake of basing policy on wishful thinking.) The phenomenon is particularly apt in school settings, where the teacher in the room is everything.
    That said, federal program exist, and they divide the US into those who benefit and those who pay. Thanks to govt mandates, for example, the $42 billion/year ethanol industry consumes 40 percent of the corn crop, a fact that is painfully apparent in supermarkets at the moment, and does little to achieve energy independence.
    Universal preschool helps the four of five mothers who work full time, and who likely pay more than $10k/year in child care, much of it subsidized by taxpayers. To the extent that it reduces remedial and special education expenses in later years, it also helps struggling school districts. Even if the effect on kids is net zero, there will be some classrooms in which, and some kids for whom, early childhood education makes life-changing differences.
    So, corn or kids?

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