Universal preschool sounds like a no-brainer.
President Barack Obama proposed it in his State of the Union. He followed that address with a speech in Decatur, Ga.
"Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road," he said in Georgia. "But here's the thing: We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance."
"Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for the poor children who need it the most, the lack of access to a great preschool education can have an impact on their entire lives. And we all pay a price for that. And as I said, this is not speculation. Study after study shows the achievement gap starts off very young."
This all sounds good, except facts are stubborn things.
Before we immediately greenlight billions in new spending for a new government program (entitlement), let's take some time to review current pre-K programs, through thoughtful, published studies.
Head Start, which was launched in 1965, provides early education to the children whose families earn up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level and disabled children nationwide, for a total cost of $180 billion to date. Obama has proposed $8 billion for Head Start in his just-released annual budget. The program serves over 1 million children in all 50 states at a cost of about $8,000 per student.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services commissioned a study to evaluate Head Start's effectiveness. The study found that though the program had a "positive impact" on children's experiences through the preschool years, "advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole. Impacts at the end of kindergarten were scattered." Wait, only a "few statistically significant differences," for $8,000 per child per year? And this is what the government found!
This study led Time magazine columnist Joe Klein (hardly a conservative) to call for the elimination of Head Start, writing, "According to the Head Start Impact Study, which was quite comprehensive, the positive effects of the program were minimal and vanished by the end of first grade. Head Start graduates performed about the same as students of similar income and social status who were not part of the program. These results were so shocking that the HHS team sat on them for several years. ... Finally there is indisputable evidence about the program's effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work."