As Russ Whitehurst writes, the Obama preschool proposal as currently constructed is far from "universal."
Whereas the president has been selling his preschool plan to the middle-class parents as universal, i.e., available to them, the White House fact sheet makes it clear that the administration is proposing to work with states to fund expansion of taxpayer-funded pre-K for lower income families. Specifically, the administration’s plan is to share the costs with states that are willing to expand public preschool to reach all four-year olds from families at or below 200% of the poverty line and that expand their half-day kindergarten programs to full day for the same families.
There's a silver lining here, luckily: that's a good thing! There's a limited but significant body of evidence that targeted pre-school programs - i.e. ones that are limited in scope and cost and focus only on the least fortunate - yield significant returns to students. The principle of universality, however, has no basis in empirical research.
Head Start, the most comprehensive early-childhood education program in the United States, has yielded limited - if any - benefits to its students. A study by the Department of Health and Human Services released recently showed that there were little to no long-term gains for students enrolled in the program.
Conservative scholar Charles Murray, writing in Bloomberg View, writes that it's less of a matter of money and more of a matter of effectiveness. Obama's promises simply are too lofty, too soon.
The take-away from the story of early childhood education is that the very best programs probably do a modest amount of good in the long run, while the early education program that can feasibly be deployed on a national scale, Head Start, has never proved long-term results in half a century of existence. In the most rigorous evaluation ever conducted, Head Start doesn’t show results that persist even until the third grade.
Let me rephrase this more starkly: As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.
Indeed, Factcheck.org, a site that has not exactly been friendly to conservatives in the past, calls Obama's claims on the benefits of federal preschool a "stretch." Its analysis pulls fewer punches:
“We just haven’t seen the same types of gains for all kids when programs become available more broadly,” said Fitzpatrick in a phone interview with FactCheck.org. “We don’t really know what the returns are yet from a universal program.”
In his State of the Union address, Obama exaggerated the effects of universal preschool by comparing results from small, expensive programs targeted to disadvantaged youth to a universal program for which such results are unproven.
FactCheck also goes on to confirm what we know: preschool programs that are limited in scope and humble about their expectations are the most successful. Promising universality to parents, as President Obama is doing, is irresponsible and misleading. Luckily, in this case, America is better off for it.