As the Obama Administration attempts to move toward universal, taxpayer-funded preschool, policymakers should examine the experiences of states that have offered such programs for more than a decade. Both Georgia and Oklahoma have done so, but there is little evidence that taxpayers and children are benefiting.
Universal Preschool in Georgia. Since 1993, the state of Georgia has offered all four-year-old children the opportunity to enroll in government-funded preschool programs. During the 2011–2012 school year, more than 82,000 children enrolled in the state preschool program. Georgia spends heavily on early childhood education, over $355 million in 2011. Per-pupil spending on preschool exceeds $4,300 per child.
Universal Preschool in Oklahoma. 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.”
Georgia and Oklahoma should provide a cautionary note to proponents of government preschool. The experiences of these two states casts doubt that a federal universal preschool would yield the significant long-term benefits that supporters promise.