Society and Culture, Education, Pethokoukis

Is Obama’s universal pre-K plan too much, too soon?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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.




9 thoughts on “Is Obama’s universal pre-K plan too much, too soon?

  1. Oh – you almost got there! But not quite. We graduate an average of 72% of all high school students. In affluent neighborhoods the percentage is much higher, and in poor rural and/or inner city school districts, it can be as low as 50%.

    Every study out there suggests that if you want to reach a kid with enough esteem, encouragement, mentoring, support, and respect to ensure THEY OVERCOME whatever is in their lives, you have to do it in the earliest ages. You’re fighting gangs, poverty, abuse, homelessness, decrepit school buildings and sometimes, the most ill prepared teachers at those very very poor schools.

    But you’re also lining your own pocket, so to speak.

    A kid who has never finished high school has absolutely no chance of ever earning a living wage for himself or his family. They cannot participate in a quest for the middle class. They and their children are doomed to repeat the cycle of poverty and lack of proper education.

    Thus we support them in prisons, we suffer their gang fights, their drug addictions; our property values go down, our neighborhoods crumble, our country is deprived of the general benefit in taxes paid, homes purchased and maintained, roads and bridges and school dollars available, and we see the absolute waste of generational proverty and crime generation after generation.

    2% of our entire population of 300 million are in prison in this country. You are supporting them.

    • Sharon the only problem with you position is all the international educational studies I have reviewed show those nations that discount self esteem and creativity always suffer in the technical edcuation area. It appears we have to decide lees self esteem and more technical skills or more esteem and less technical skills.
      Sorry to say but in today’s world technical skills are more important.

      • Mike, I think you need to re-read your study – link it here for us if you can.

        ‘discount’ normally means give little significance to. You seem to be contradicting your premise.

  2. Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.
    The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
    Old saws had it right. Is a secular humanist government the right delivery vehicle?

  3. I, for one, am surprised that Obama’s “solution” for lagging test scores is to throw more money at the problem and hire more unionized government employees. Shocking!

    • Mopre money?

      What is the cost of prison for 6 million?

      Lost wages?

      lost taxes?

      poverty and crime?

      No guarantees… but certainly leaving those kids unable to compete has not helped us one iota.

  4. “Progressives” have been in control of Detroit for at least 50-60 years. If their policies were any good should’nt Detroit be the gem of the world.

    Instead it is the arm pit. Run whenever you hear a “Progressive” speak.

  5. The basic notion that the Federal Government wants to add pre-school to the list of failed educational initiatives is amazing. There is data to suggest that pre-school is not a lasting impact. Interesting to read this data, of which I am sceptical. The issue is education and getting the status quo public education out of the way, moving unions to the sidelines, and using good management practices to make this work. All other distractions should be viewed with disdain. Our kids need better and we should not deter from giving it to them.

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