Obama Pushes For Universal Pre-K in SOTU Speech - What's It Worth?

Posted: Feb 13, 2013 9:48 AM
The section on expanding government funding for pre-K schooling programs around the country took up only a few minutes of President Obama's State of the Union address, but is heavily emphasized by the White House. While "universal pre-K" makes for good rhetoric, actual implementation of the policy makes all the difference in the world - and there's good reason to question the efficacy of such programs.

"Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America," Obama said. "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. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind."

That was the meat of Obama's speech, but the White House also released supplemental materials emphasizing the coming Obama Administration push for early-childhood education:

Providing high-quality preschool for every child: For this country to succeed in the 21st century, America must have the most dynamic, educated workforce in the world, and that education has to start early in life. Every dollar invested in early learning and development programs saves about $7 down the road in higher earnings that yield more revenue, and lower government spending on social services and crime prevention. But today, most four-year-olds aren’t in a high-quality public preschool program, and only ten states and the District of Columbia require school districts to provide free, full- day kindergarten.

Supporting all 50 states to provide access to preschool for all low- and moderate-income children: The President is proposing to work with Congress to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool, while also expanding these programs to reach hundreds of thousands of additional middle class children, and incentivizing full-day kindergarten policies, so that all children enter kindergarten prepared for academic success.

Russ Whitehurst at the Brookings Institute wrote recently on the pre-K programs that President Obama specifically mentions. The evidence is sorely lacking. Whitehurst writes that "there was no overall impact on the achievement of Georgia's 4th graders of their prior access to universal pre-K," and that research concluded that "the costs of the program... greatly outweigh the benefits." Whitehurst writes that Oklahoma's program - which was not a universal pre-K program but targeted for low-income families - showed more promising results, but, Whitehurst writes, the "research design of the Tulsa study is critically flawed."

There currently exist all sorts of pre-kintergarten child care and learning programs, funded both by the federal government and by the states. Scholars Douglas Besharov and Douglas M. Call wrote in Wilson Quarterly [pdf] that "about 70% of all three- and four-year-olds nationwide already spend at least some time in some form of center-based child care or Head Start," while Whitehurst finds that 28% of American four-year-olds are already enrolled in government-funded universal pre-K programs. The danger is in the push for early-childhood subsidies for families that would not benefit from it. As Besharov and Call write:

James Heckman, a University of Chicago Nobel laureate in economics, is one of the strongest voices in favor of early education for low-income children, but here is what he says about applying the model to the middle class: “Advocates and supporters of universal preschool often use existing research for purely political purposes. But the solid evidence for the effectiveness of early interventions is limited to those conducted on disadvantaged populations.”

This is not to say that any form of early-childhood education program would be a bad idea. As Whitehurst writes, "some programs work for some children under some conditions." The trick is to figuring out which programs work and survive a cost-benefit analysis to be worth it in the long-run. There's some evidence that programs that are limited in scope and targeted at the neediest children could be a boon. Truly universal pre-K programs, however, have very little evidence to support their effectiveness.

President Obama could help bring some clarity to his willingness to examine empirical evidence in re-evaluating the federal Head Start program. The Department of Health and Human Services recently released the findings of a wide-ranging study that found that "access to Head Start improved children's preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade." Few if any long-term benefits have been attained by Head Start enrollees. While there were short-term benefits to low-income students, almost across the board, those evaporated within a few years. A President Obama who called for a re-evaluation of the Head Start program in conjunction with limited pilot programs would be a President dedicated to pushing for truly effective federal early-childhood education policy.

K-12 education remains an incredibly important challenge for policymakers at both the state and federal level, and early-childhood learning programs can and should play a part. But it's important to both be humble about the promises of such programs while being able to acknowledge the successes and failures of such programs to date. States can and should serve as laboratories of democracy before a heavy-handed federal government turns modest programs into universal mandates. President Obama's early-childhood education proposals are incredibly vague, but there's hope on the federal level for targeted early-childhood education policy that works. Heavy-handedness and a lack of introspection on previous federal education policy might doom early childhood education reform to failure.