Let parents, not the state, decide on pre-K
April 5, 2022
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Though it comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the evidence on pre-K programs, a blockbuster new study found that a state pre-K program long held up as a national model actually harms students both academically and behaviorally. It’s time to empower parents through school choice programs to make the right decision for their own children.
At a time when Oklahoma’s government school system is pushing to get more kids into pre-K, a blockbuster new study has recently found that Tennessee’s pre-K program—long held up as a national model by advocates of aggressive pre-K expansion—actually harms students both academically and behaviorally. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the evidence on pre-K programs. Oklahoma should let parents decide on pre-K, empowering them through school choice programs but not pushing them in one direction or the other.
The government school system in Oklahoma saw a major decline in pre-K enrollment during the pandemic, and is scrambling to reverse it—because more little kids in institutions means bigger budgets for the people who run those institutions. Pre-K in Oklahoma shrunk from almost 42,000 in 2019-20 to just over 37,000 in 2020-21, a drop of over 10%. And that merely nudged back up to a hair over 38,000 in the current school year.
“Reversing this trend is critical; attending Pre-K provides a foundation of knowledge and skills that promotes student success well into the future,” proclaims the state Department of Education, without evidence. “It is important to identify students within the community who would benefit from a school’s Pre-K program and actively work to get those students enrolled, no matter the time of year. For early learners, every day of learning counts.”
It’s certainly true that for early learners, every day counts. The question is whether a day in pre-K counts positively or negatively. The evidence suggests that for most kids, at this very young age, being at home with their families is preferable to being in an institution.
Recently, a very high-quality study examined outcomes for almost 3,000 pre-K students in Tennessee. The program was oversubscribed, so applicants were selected to participate by random lottery. That allowed the study to use the top-quality method used in medical trials, comparing outcomes for a “treatment” group (those who won the lottery and attended pre-K) and a “control” group (those who lost the lottery and did not attend pre-K).
The study followed students through sixth grade and found negative outcomes lasting all the way through the study period. Students who attended pre-K had lower test scores than those who did not. A negative pre-K effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services.
Nor is this the first study to question the benefits of pre-K, at least for most students. A few years ago I published an OCPA report going over the issues in pre-K, including the results of decades of empirical research on its effects. Russ Whitehurst, former head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, points out that as the scientific quality of studies gets higher, their findings on pre-K get more dismal: “Not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial, and nearly all have serious limitations in external validity,” while “the only two studies in the list with both high internal and external validity (Head Start Impact and Tennessee) find null or negative impacts, and all of the studies that point to very small, null, or negative effects have high external validity.”
Whitehurst’s mention of “Tennessee” refers not to the new study but to another, previous study that failed to find benefits from Tennessee’s much-lauded pre-K program. That in itself is an image in miniature of the whole pre-K policy racket. The studies keep turning in disappointing results, but the programs plod on, because they mean bigger budgets to the government school system.
Don’t get me wrong; there are students who do benefit from pre-K. These studies are not finding that every single student without exception was harmed (or not helped) by pre-K. They’re finding that on balance, the net effect is not positive. That means the negative effect of taking some kids away from their families at this young age outweighed the positive effect that other kids did experience. It’s trying to push all kids into pre-K, not offering pre-K to families who really want it, that is the problem.
In fact, I serve on the board of a private school that offers a pre-K program. We don’t do that because we enjoy hurting kids. We do it because in the community where we serve, there are kids who will benefit from this program. It doesn’t matter how many other kids there are who wouldn’t benefit from it, as long as there are at least enough who would benefit to justify offering a pre-K classroom.
But we aren’t using the power of the state to shove families into pre-K indiscriminately. We know our community, and we work with parents to identify the students who would benefit from our program. No child walks into our doors unless both our staff and the parents agree that the child will benefit from being there—and nobody is applying political pressure to that decision.
Parents should be empowered through school choice programs—including for pre-K—to make the right decision for their own children. Our school serves pre-K children through a school choice program, and that keeps our school grounded where it should be: in choices made by parents who know and love their own children, and know what’s best for them. Otherwise, budget-hungry government should keep its nose out of which kids go to pre-K and which don’t.