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."
The agency updated this study in October 2012, waiting to release it until after Obama's reelection. The findings were the same, as Mary Katharine Ham notes on the widely read national conservative blog Hot Air. Ham summarizes the study thusly: "The theme of this evaluation is 'no statistically measurable effect,' and what tiny positive effects there are among subgroups in behavioral and parental improvements are outweighed by statistically measurable harmful impacts in others. This is not a wise way to spend billions of dollars."
In December 2008, Stanford University's Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick completed an exhaustive study of Georgia's pre-K program. Her conclusion: "The results of the study and its cost benefit analysis indicate scarce public funds may be used more efficiently by implementing targeted strategies in the design of pre-K programs, perhaps by using observable characteristics like the income of families or the population density in school districts."
Vanderbilt University just completed a similar study, of which the Brookings Institution's Russ Whitehurst says, "The most defensible conclusion is that these statewide programs are not working to meaningfully increase the academic achievement or social/emotional skills and dispositions of children from low-income families."
Where are the positive studies, you ask? They are three and four decades old, for the most part. More recent studies are very narrow and study small programs that would be impossible to replicate on a national scale.
Where does this leave us? It is easy to demagogue universal pre-K, and Democratic politicians are doing so everywhere. But before we start a new entitlement that will never die, we should evaluate what we have now. Can anyone say taxpayers got $180 billion in benefit from Head Start over the past 50 years?
Whitehurst also said this: "Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all."