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A closer look at Obama’s universal pre-K proposal

Last night, during a time-out in the Wizards-Pistons game (that’s NBA basketball, albeit at a low level), I heard Bill O’Reilly agree with one of Fox News’ house liberals that all of the small-ball programs advocated by President Obama is his SOTU address are worthwhile, assuming we could afford them. O’Reilly’s comment confirms that he isn’t a conservative. But it also helps show that conservatives are unwise if they laugh off liberal agenda items as a “laundry list.”

There’s a reason why Obama (and Bill Clinton before him) lards up the SOTU with the liberal laundry list. The reason is that these programs sound good to most Americans.

Perhaps the best-sounding item on Obama’s Tuesday night list is the universal pre-kindergarten plan. James Pethokoukis offers a useful analysis of that proposal. What would it involve? According to Pethokoukis:

The White House plan will likely resemble a nearly $100 billion (over ten years) proposal fashioned by the Center for American Progress (CAP). Here are its key elements:

– The federal government would, on average, match state preschool expenditures up to $10,000 per child per year.

– This funding would allow families with children ages 3 and 4 to voluntarily send their children to a full-day (nine-hour) public preschool program or to choose a shorter-day alternative.

– Preschool would be free for children from families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

– Children from families above 200 percent of the poverty line would be charged a sliding tuition co-pay, ranging from about 30 percent of the cost to 95 percent of the cost (for families above 400 percent of the poverty line).

What’s the case for it?

The CAP study points to research of intensive pre-K education from economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman. His work suggests, CAP explains, “a very high return on investment” — perhaps as high as $13 in benefits to the general public for every $1 spent. Heckman looked at two programs, the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, that decades ago randomly assigned 200 poor kids into control and treatment groups. While the programs did not permanently raise IQs, the kids who received the enriched education had better outcomes as adults than those in the control group. They earned more, were more likely to stay off welfare, more likely to stay out of jail, and more likely to own a home.

What’s the catch? The programs studied by Heckman weren’t universal pre-K programs. They were small-scale programs targeted at low-income kids.

1. Perry and Abecedarian were multi-year intensive interventions whereas state pre-K programs are overwhelmingly one year programs for four-year-olds.

2. Costs per participant for Perry and Abecedarian were multiples of the levels of investment in present-day state preschool programs, e.g., $90,000 per child for Abecedarian.

3. Both Perry and Abecedarian were small hothouse programs (less than 100 participants) run by very experienced, committed teams, whereas widely deployed present day preschool programs are, well, widely deployed. The circumstances of the very poor families of the Black children who were served by these model programs 30 to 40 years ago are very different from those faced by the families that are presently served by publicly funded preschool programs. For example, nearly half of the four-year-olds in Head Start today are Hispanics, whereas there were no Hispanic children in Abecedarian or Perry.

4. And 40 years ago other government supports for low-income families were at much lower levels and pre-K was not widely available for anyone, much less the poor.

A more reliable indicator of the merits of pre-K programs can be found in modern Head Start programs. According to Pethokoukis, “researchers have found that initial positive impacts from the program don’t persist into middle childhood.”

The bottom line, says Pethokoukis, is that although “small-scale experimental efforts staffed by highly motivated people show effects, when they are subject to well-designed large-scale replications, those promising signs attenuate and often evaporate altogether.”

The bottom line for me is that, in any realistic scenario, universal pre-K will not make a dent in the barriers to the success of at-risk children that arise from the social pathologies and prevailing attitudes of the day.

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