Assessing Universal Pre-K

As proposed by the President in his State of the Union address, the Obama Administration is making the push for Early Education, or Universal Pre-K, for all preschool-aged children.  At the outset, I get squeamish when the term “universal” is applied to voluntary programs; as a father of preschool aged children, the proposal caught my ear, and not in a good way.  Although my children won’t be attending preschool, public or otherwise, I gave it a listen, as I want to judge a program based on its results, not on speculative intentions. Besides, what kind of heartless person would oppose early childhood education?

For starters, a Universal Pre-K program is estimated to cost about $10 billion per year, which, compared to a $700 billion Defense Department budget, doesn’t seem like much.  Costs estimates per student vary wildly, from $4,000 in a Brookings Institute study - unsurprisingly front-running the SOTU by one week - to $13,000 per student in the Abecedarian Study.  Such a program would be 20% higher than regular K-12 education, about double the cost of a year of our current Head Start Program, and more than three times the average state-run preschool.

Proponents of Universal Pre-K, like those in the excellent discussion on Up with Chris Hayes this weekend, point out that, despite a 16% budget increase, Pre-K program would pay off in the long run, and that for every dollar spent, the economy sees about a 10% Return on Investment.  If this is true, the argument goes, we should be investing in universal preschool to stay globally competitive, because while the average preschool enrollment is 77% in OECD nations, it’s only 56% in the US.

Reports show that every dollar invested in preschool saves $7 in the course of a child’s life by keeping them on the proverbial straight-and-narrow, a point repeated in the President’s SOTU.  Most importantly, findings from the famous Abecedarian and Perry studies show that Pre-K attendees outperformed their peers by age 27.  According to Joan Walsh, all this makes Universal Pre-K a “no-brainer.”

But a Bloomberg article today questioned the “shaky science” behind these studies, as it ignored other variables like socioeconomic status, childhood birth weight, and importantly, sample size: the results touted in these studies could not be replicated in larger scale models.  Most obviously, higher income parents, whose children tend to do better in school, can afford to pay preschool.  A Universal Pre-K program would, according to some, ”level the playing field.”

Results here are shaky as well, when considering the forerunner to Universal Pre-K, the federal Head Start program.  Founded in 1965, Head Start currently services 22 million preschool children in lower socioeconomic groups; it’s eligible only for families earning less than 130% of the federal poverty level. Its effectiveness has been questioned in internal study after internal study, which found, sadly, that 45 years and $166 billion later, decades of Head Start evaluations have mostly showed no effects.

My Take

All the attention on childhood performance ignores what I think is the most important aspect of Universal Pre-K.  The focus should not be on education standards or the increased performance of toddlers, whether now or 27 years from now.  Let’s call this program what it is: Subsidized Daycare.  And this might also surprise you: That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Obviously, there is no such thing as free lunch, or free daycare, and such a program would definitely constitute a wealth transfer.  But with the cost of childcare subsidized, working parents – particularly single mothers – would see an immediate economic impact, as this, although regrettably Rawlsian in nature, would serve as a sort of supplemental to a basic income guarantee.  I see a difference here between a social welfare state and a civil society, which, to fit my definition, is voluntarily funded the way local police, firefighters, roads, and education systems are.

And just as with our K-12 education system, the federal government is not required to fund Universal Pre-K for us to have it; indeed, the federal government has no education authority in our Constitution.

The question we must ask ourselves is, “What kind of a society do we want to live in?”  Although ideally, I’d like to see all education returned to the community level, I would not balk at funding it at the state level.  The same goes for Pre-K.  Many states already have Universal Pre-K, and I would contend the federal government’s involvement actually makes these programs worse.  Instead, we should focus on returning K-12 education to the states, where, along with Pre-K, it belongs.

But what’s your take?

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