Proponents of President Obama’s universal prekindergarten proposal make a strong case for the potential benefits of such a plan. Studies of about 100 low-income kids enrolled in two pricey and intensive preschool projects in the 1960s and 1970s found the children, while not experiencing any permanen IQ improvement, developed life skills that meant they were more likely as adults to hold a job, own a home, and stay out of jail than counterparts in a control group.
More recently studies of broader, statewide pre-K programs, particularly in Oklahoma provide some further evidence of effectiveness, though the results are certainly not ,without dispute. Russ Whitehurst of Brookings call them “thin empirical gruel” that shouldn’t “satisfy policymakers who want to practice evidence-based education.” And in The Wall Street Journal, Maria Fitzpatrick, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, cautions “results show that only some children gain—disadvantaged children, particularly those in rural areas—and that the effects fade out over time.”
So where does that leave us? Is it worth spending $100 billion over a decade on an education program whose benefits might prove transitory? What’s the downside of a implementing a broad, quality program with well-trained teachers and small class size — other than failure? Well, wasting $100 billion is not an insignificant downside. And once the program is in place, politicians will be tempted to expand it further, creating another unaffordable middle-class entitlement.
Moreover, since the federal funds are likely to be funneled through public schools, the pre-K plan represents a further retreat from school choice. Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation worries about a crowding out effect and a resulting “reduction in private preschool programs, including faith-based providers and non-profit preschools, [that]will result in diminished parental choice and control in education. Universal preschool will limit choice for parents because it will be difficult for private preschools to compete with highly subsidized or free government-supported programs.”
Educator Chester Finn, in a 2009 Washington Post piece, recommends that instead of a pre-K program for all, policymakers should focus on the following:
1. Delivering intensive, targeted education services — preferably starting at birth and including parents as well as children — to the relative handful of children (one or two of every 10 babies) who would truly be unready to succeed in school without heavy-duty interventions. Most are children of poor, young, single mothers, often of color, who themselves have little education.
2. Redeploying pre-K funds and revamping existing programs, beginning with Head Start, to emphasize the cognitive side of kindergarten preparation (e.g., pre-literacy skills such as letters, sounds and shapes) and judging the effectiveness of such programs by the readiness of their graduates.
3. Beefing up school-reform efforts so that the classrooms poor children enter have high standards, knowledgeable teachers, coherent curriculums and the ability to tailor instruction to children’s readiness levels — and to accumulate gains from year to year rather than dissipate and squander them.
There might be a compromise to be had on this issue.