Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Empty rhetoric over preschool President Obama is pushing Congress to "invest" in "high-quality preschool." His rationale is that early education has "proven" to boost graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancy, reduce violent crime and lead to a greater like
There are two problems with this: No such long-term benefits are proven and the preschool plan, as detailed on the White House website, calls for "investing" in a proven failure.
The president's assertion, in his recent State of the Union address, that every dollar spent on "high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on" was followed by a reference to Georgia and Oklahoma and their universal preschool programs for 4-year-olds.
Americans could be forgiven for concluding that Georgia's preschools have had proven gains over the long term. But the long-term effectiveness of the 20-year-old program has never been studied. One researcher, a Stanford fellow, said too many other factors contribute to a student's ability to graduate from high school.
And although Georgia's first-in-the-nation universal preschool program for 4-year-olds increased the math and reading test scores of low-income students in rural areas by 12 percent and increased their likelihood of reading on grade level by 7 percent, the results -- while not trivial -- hardly prove more "bang for the buck" that the president is attributing to universal preschool.
Besides that, the gains are not universal. Even studies finding positive long-term impacts from preschool say the they are similarly limited to the economically disadvantaged.
For example, the $7 in benefit for every $1 spent on early education cited by Obama is from a University of Chicago study of the Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Mich.
But that program cost $19,000 per student in today's dollars vs. the approximately $6,000 per student most states spend on universal preschool today.
The Perry school offered a two-year program starting at age 3, in contrast to the four-year-olds-only, one-year programs offered by most states, including Georgia and Oklahoma.
And, like the Georgia study, the Perry school's benefits were limited to economically disadvantaged students.
OK, so why not boost access to preschool for the economically disadvantaged and expand the reach of its proven benefits?
The president proposes to do just that in calling for the expansion of both the Head Start and Early Head Start programs, which are federal education programs for economically disadvantaged 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds, respectively.
Unfortunately, a recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cast doubt on the programs' effectiveness.
The study focused on Head Start through third grade, finding that its positive impacts on children's development were limited to preschool itself, with "little evidence of systematic differences in children's elementary school experiences through third grade."
In other words, Georgia's preschools are better than the federal government's.
So, why expand a centralized failure when state programs are serving America's children better?
There are two problems with the president's assertion about the effectiveness of "high-quality" preschool.