In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama laid out an plan to expand preschool education to all American children. He said:
"Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance."
Obama's proposal is based, in part, on research about the economic benefits of preschool programs for children who participate. For example, research by the Center for American Progress found that preschool programs generate $11 of economic benefits for every dollar spent. They also found a that at-risk youth who receive early childhood education are more likely to go to college and stay in school and less likely to get in trouble with the law or become teenage parents.
The benefits of preschool education aren't just enjoyed by individuals either. Travis Waldron, a blogger for ThinkProgress, notes a 2009 Brookings study which found that universal preschool programs increase both human capital and the nation’s gross domestic product.
However some commentators are skeptical about the benefits of a universal preschool program. In an opinion piece for the National Review Online, Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, argued:
"The major federal effort in pre-K — the 45 year-old Head Start program — has been found again and again and again to have few long-term benefits for participants. Any gains fade out by the third grade. A reasonable question is whether that's the fault of Head Start or the fault of our dysfunctional public-education system. But there's little reason for confidence that new federal spending in pre-K, if it looks anything like Head Start, will lead to better results for poor and middle-class children."
Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution echoed some of Petrilli's concerns in his commentary on the president's preschool proposal:
"The evidence that (preschool) can be done effectively in a scalable manner is basically zero. Aren’t massive policies (possibly universal?) supposed to be based on evidence?"
But he added, "That doesn’t mean we should do nothing."