| March 6, 2013

President Obama's enthusiasm for Oklahoma preschool not universally shared

During his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama proposed making “high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”

“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,” the president averred.

Given that Oklahoma’s universal preschool program began in 1998, meaning the program’s first participants are still teenagers, it’s not clear Mr. Obama can be trusted when he says these Oklahomans are now more likely to hold a job and form stable families.

Indeed, “there is little evidence that taxpayers and children are benefiting” from Oklahoma’s preschool program, writes Heritage Foundation research fellow Lindsey Burke.

Since 1998, Oklahoma has offered all four-year-old children the opportunity to attend state-funded preschool. During the 2011–2012 school year, more than 38,000 children enrolled in either full-day or half-day state-run preschool programs; more than 70 percent of four-year-olds in Oklahoma are enrolled in state-funded public preschool. Oklahoma spent more than $133 million on early education in 2011, and per-pupil preschool spending is nearly $7,700 per child.

Given the importance of reading as a foundation for learning in later years, fourth-grade reading test scores are a leading indicator for academic achievement. In order to get an idea of the reading achievement of fourth graders in Georgia and Oklahoma, one can turn to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the nation’s “report card.” While NAEP outcomes are influenced by many factors, if universal preschool yielded the kinds of meaningful, long-term benefits promised by supporters, it would likely be evident in NAEP fourth-grade reading scores.

More than a decade after offering students universal preschool, neither Oklahoma nor Georgia has shown impressive progress in students’ academic achievement, as measured by the NAEP. In fact, in Oklahoma, fourth-grade reading test scores have declined since 1998, when the state first implemented universal preschool. Moreover, in Georgia, an evaluation conducted by Georgia State University found that “by the end of first grade, children who did not attend preschool had skills similar to those of Georgia’s preschoolers.”

It’s not just reading scores. In The Wall Street Journal (“The Dispiriting Evidence on Preschool”), Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell give Oklahoma’s program an “F” when it comes to improving graduation rates, closing the minority achievement gap, and lowering teen births (contra the president’s claim about forming more stable families).

Universal preschool advocates, for their part, like to point to a 2008 Tulsa study that says government preschool can boost school readiness. But preschool expert Russ Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, says “the research design of the Tulsa study is critically flawed.” Dr. Whitehurst, now a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, says studies such as those offer only “thin empirical gruel” and “fall far short of providing a convincing case for investment in universal pre-K.” (Dalmia and Snell are not persuaded by subsequent Tulsa evidence, either.) Even James Heckman, the economist beloved of Oklahoma’s preschool advocates, says “I would be cautious” of reading too much into statewide programs like Oklahoma’s. “I don’t find them as convincing,” he says.

Moreover, Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and his co-authors concluded that universal pre-K is “an ineffective mechanism for addressing the challenge of better preparing children for school.”

“At best, universal pre-K is a babysitting service,” writes best-selling career-management author Penelope Trunk. Calling universal pre-K “a throwback to pre-1970s feminism,” she says it “does very little for working women,” takes away “the very idea of choice that women have been fighting for,” and is “out of sync with what families need.”

Nevertheless, the “progressive” enthusiasm persists for the institutionalization of small children. This is nothing new.

Rejecting this progressive vision altogether, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins cuts to the chase: “Children need parental involvement and attention. They need strong families. What a 4-year-old needs more than anything is a loving, secure home with a mom and dad who love each other. There is no better way to start a young life. We cannot have secure, well-prepared, confident children if we continue to sustain a culture where no-fault divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births are the norm.”

Policymakers should work to bolster intact married families. And they should give those families a voucher, a tax break, or an Education Savings Account so families can make their own decisions about how to educate their young children.

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