The Washington Post recently ran a piece by Chester Finn, asking to “slow the preschool bandwagon”, which currently consists of a $10 billion pledge by President Obama for his “zero to five” program, numerous bills in Congress to promote states’ efforts in implementing universal preschool, and a chorus of governors, unions, and preschool advocacy groups across the country pushing for an increased federal role in early education. Finn notes:
For all its surface appeal, universal preschool is an unwise use of tax dollars…It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps 5-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring from preschool. Part of the energy behind universal pre-K is school systems – and teachers unions – maneuvering to expand their own mandates, revenue and membership rolls.
Finn also notes that it is a myth that preschool programs have been educationally effective:
On the contrary, while a few tiny, costly programs targeting very poor children have shown some lasting positive effects, the overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school.
In a new Backgrounder, Does Universal Preschool Improve Academic Achievement? Lessons from Georgia and Florida, it is shown that many of the benefits advocates contend would arise from early education programs would likely fail to manifest themselves through universal preschool. For example, Georgia and Oklahoma have experimented with universal preschool for decades, yet children in those states have failed to realize improvements in reading. After decades of universal preschool, Georgia fourth-graders have seen only a seven-point overall gain in reading and still lag behind the national average. In Oklahoma, reading scores have actually declined since the state began offering universal preschool in 1998.
The paper also lays out problems with existing programs such as Head start, which has cost taxpayers more than $100 billion dollars since it began, yet fails to prepare its children for kindergarten – its stated purpose. In fact, a 2003 evaluation by HHS – the department that administers the program – stated:
Head Start chil¬dren are not adequately prepared for school, and those who have been in the program still enter kindergarten lagging far behind the typical Amer¬ican child in skills needed for school readiness.
Furthermore, the report explains how expanded federal involvement in early education is unnecessary:
Throughout the United States, parents of young children have an abun¬dance of options for early education. These options include state-run pre-kindergarten programs, pri¬vate pre-kindergarten programs, faith-based cen¬ters, federal Head Start, special education, and family care and instruction. Currently, more than 80 percent of all four-year-old children are enrolled in some form of preschool.
In 2008, total enrollment in state-funded pre-K education reached 1.1 million children nationally, with state-funded preschool programs available in 38 states. State funding for pre-kindergarten was $1 billion (23 percent) higher than 2007 figures. In addition, children from low-income families are eligible for the federal Head Start program, which is available in every state. Since low-income families already have access to taxpayer-subsidized pre¬school, an expanded federal role in preschool edu¬cation would represent a subsidy to middle class and wealthy households.