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Would Obama’s preschool ‘for all’ plan be a waste of money?

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What is the logic behind pre-K for all? Why the “for all?” Why would a publicly-funded preschool program have to be universal as President Obama and New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio advocate? It sure would be a lot more expensive that way. For instance, this 2012 University of Texas study found that “preschools may reduce inequalities in early academic achievement by providing children from disadvantaged families with higher-quality learning environments than they would otherwise receive.”

But “advantaged” families — not so much. As a Slate article by Melinda Wenner Moyer on the UT study succinctly put it: “If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool.” Indeed, claims of high return on investment from pre-K spending by economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman refer to expensive, narrowly targeted programs aimed at very poor families.

New research raises further questions about the necessity of such programs being universal — and thus costing $75-$100 billion. Here’s the conclusion of The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education by Elizabeth Cascio and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach:

President Obama’s “Preschool for All” initiative calls for dramatic increases in the number of 4 year olds enrolled in public preschool programs and in the quality of these programs nationwide. The proposed program shares many characteristics with the universal preschools that have been offered in Georgia and Oklahoma since the 1990s.

This study draws together data from multiple sources to estimate the impacts of these “model” state programs on preschool enrollment and a broad set of family and child outcomes.

For lower-income children, the state programs increase the likelihood of preschool enrollment, the amount of time spent with mothers on activities such as reading, and test performance as late as eighth grade. For higher-income families, however, the programs shift children from private to public preschools, resulting in less of an impact on overall enrollment but a significant reduction in childcare expenses, and appear to have no effect on children’s test scores.

No doubt that universal pre-K would be a great financial deal for higher-income families, but if the educational outputs don’t improve, is that a good use of taxpayer dollars? One caveat raised by researchers is that test score gains observed in Georgia and Oklahoma might be caused by “peer effects” from a better classroom environment caused due to the presence of higher-income kids, a case for universality. The authors: “We cannot rule out this possibility, and we think it is an important question for future research.”

Yes, by all means. Let’s do some more research and small-scale experimentation before creating a new middle-class entitlement. Program designers must factor the impact of means testing — Obama proposes a sliding-scale subsidy, for instance — on the marginal tax rates of low-income families. But, in general, I agree with Brink Lindsey in his book Human Capitalism:

The agenda for reforming human capitalism must therefore include ongoing initiatives to learn from past successes and give disadvantaged kids access to the enriched and stimulating environment that is the launching pad for socioeconomic achievement.

4 thoughts on “Would Obama’s preschool ‘for all’ plan be a waste of money?

  1. We know for certain that Headstart is a waste of money. It has no long term effects, and students leaving Headstart quickly average back to students who never participated. So why would anyone imagine that adding several years at the front end of Headstart produce any better results?

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