In his State of the Union address, President Obama said he wanted to “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America” and “make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
So Heritage experts took a look at the President’s plan to see if it would actually help America’s needy children get ahead in the “race of life.”
Another government-controlled, top-down, one-size-fits-all program—what could go wrong?
Look at the government’s record. As Heritage’s Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education, and research associate Rachel Sheffield point out in their new paper, “Washington already has a poor track record for K–12 education, with federal spending nearly tripling over the past three decades while academic achievement and attainment languishes.”
Look at the government preschool we already have. There are already 45 government preschool programs run by numerous federal agencies, including the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, the Interior, and Housing and Urban Development. Burke and Sheffield note that these 45 programs “are estimated to cost taxpayers more than $20 billion annually. Many are duplicative and ineffective, failing to serve the needs of children from low-income families.”
Head Start, of course, has already shown us the ways government preschool can fail American children:
After nearly 50 years of operation, the federal Head Start program has failed to improve the educational outcomes and kindergarten readiness of participating children. Head Start should be eliminated, or at the very least it should be reformed, to allow states the flexibility to make their Head Start funds portable, allowing families to use their dollars to send their children to a private preschool of their choice.
The President’s new proposal wouldn’t help low-income children. Low-income families already have access to taxpayer-funded preschool through state programs and Head Start (which, if it continues to be funded, should be reformed to serve them better). President Obama’s proposal would subsidize middle-income and upper-income families—with no new benefit to low-income parents.
Three-quarters of four-year-olds are already in preschool. Many parents prefer to care for their young children at home. But for those who want preschool programs, there are a variety of programs available. There is no public demand for new, large-scale government spending in this area. Burke and Sheffield report that “An estimated 74 percent of four-year-old children are enrolled in preschool, public and private, across the country.”
Look at the academic evidence. Do these formal preschool programs really help kids in their academic careers? Our authors write: “Evaluations of preschool programs consistently find that any gains children make as a result of preschool quickly fade away in their early elementary years.” The Obama administration turns to a 50-year-old evaluation of a high-intervention preschool program with 58 at-risk children to make his case for taxpayer-funded, universal preschool. That means President Obama is making what researcher Russ Whitehurst calls “a prodigious leap of faith.” The outcomes of that program, known as the Perry Preschool Project, have never been replicated.
It is far more likely that the President’s proposal will produce outcomes akin to Head Start, which, according to the scientifically rigorous evaluations conducted by Health and Human Services, are abysmal.
Everyone wants children to have the best start in life. Large-scale government preschool programs are not the way to ensure that happens.
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