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Academic Bias, Recent News, U.S. Politics

Reevaluating the President’s Push for Pre-K

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” This additional preschool access would, of course, be funded through federal and state coffers. President Obama is headed to Georgia today to “formally unveil his proposal for expanding early childhood education,” reports the Washington Post.

You can read the President’s proposal here. It calls for a state-federal partnership guaranteeing that all 4-year olds at families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line receive access to preschool, as well as entails a “massively expanded Early Head Start program,” according to the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews.

A proposal by the Soros-funded Center for American Progress might give a hint as to how much this expansion may cost. “The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, is calling for universal access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, with costs shared between the federal and state governments,” report Michael Alison Chandler, Lyndsey Layton, and Susan Syrluga for the Washington Post. “For infants up to age 3, the center wants an expansion of federal child care subsidies and a doubling of Early Head Start programs.”

“That plan would initially cost $98.4 billion for preschool, $84.2 billion for child-care subsidies and $11.5 billion for Early Head Start, spread over about 10 years. The programs would cost about $25 billion a year to operate” (emphasis added).

However, the question remains whether additional programs would be effective.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Stephanie Banchero points to Heritage Scholar Lindsey Burke, who “called Head Start a failure and said she isn’t ‘optimistic that any federal expansion of preschool will look any different from this failed program.’” The WSJ’s Stephanie Banchero writes, “[Burke] pointed to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, showing that children in the program made more academic progress than their counterparts who weren’t enrolled, but those gains faded by third grade. The study also found parents of Head Start children reported their children had less aggressive behavior and better social skills.”

The President, and several studies, have indicated that pre-K education lowers crime rates, teenage pregnancy, and may even boost graduate rates. “Poor children who attend quality preschool programs are less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, more likely to be employed and earn higher incomes, and less likely to receive public benefits as adults, when compared to at-risk children who do not attend preschool, several studies have shown,” report Chandler et al.

As this demonstrates, the question about preschool, and Head Start in particular, is often one of socialization skills–less crime, fewer pregnancies, less welfare dependency–not education. It should not be billed as a conversation about the latter.

One of the justifications for universal preschool is the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study. As I reported in September 2009, CATO Scholar Adam Schaeffer asserts that the High/Scope study is methodologically flawed: he says it relies on an unusual sample and considers its results statistically significant at a 90 percent confidence interval rather than the 95 percent confidence interval. (In other words, there’s a 1 in 10 chance that the results are insignificant rather than a 1 in 20 chance.)

President Obama has pointed to Georgia and Oklahoma as model states for the Pre-K overhaul. “In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own,”* Obama said in his State of the Union address. “We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

“Georgia’s achievement scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress…have consistently tracked below the national average in math and reading in the fourth grade before, during and after the state massively expanded access to, enrollment in, and spending on its universal preschool program,” wrote Schaeffer in his 2009 paper, “The Poverty of Preschool Promises.”

“Oklahoma, where state-funded and largely government-provided preschool has been open to low-income children for 18 years and all children for almost a decade, has slipped below the national average on math and reading scores for the fourth grade since it began expanding its government preschool program in the 1990s,” wrote Schaeffer.

*Update: On Friday the Washington Post gave President Obama two Pinocchio heads for this part of his speech, because there are no studies which uphold this statement. “In the State of the Union, the president went too far by rhetorically linking the long-term results of a handful of unrelated programs to state pre-K programs that he wants to tout,” writes Glenn Kessler for the Washington Post. “There is evidence of near-term gains from such state programs, but not yet the long-term impact claimed by the president.” You can read Kessler’s run-down on each of the preschool studies, including the Perry Preschool Project, here.

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