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Is federal funding of pre-K a workable idea?

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 5:31 a.m. MDT

German Duenas-Padilla and Kylee Stauffer work on water color paintings in a preschool class. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) German Duenas-Padilla and Kylee Stauffer work on water color paintings in a preschool class. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Yes: Universal preschool will help millions achieve lives they desire

By Cary A. Buzzelli

Mcclatchy-tribune news service

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — President Barack Obama's call for universal pre-kindergarten is both great news and a great opportunity.

It is great news because if passed it will provide many more children with high quality early education. It is a great opportunity, if passed, for early childhood professionals to meet the challenge of providing many more children with high quality early education.

Providing universal pre-K means making an economic investment, educational investment and moral investment in our children and society. Other countries have already made such investments. We should wait no longer.

Since the 1980s, studies have shown the economic returns on early childhood education.

The early studies were conducted on a small group of well-designed programs: Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project and the Chicago Child-Parent Program. The findings of long-term benefits were welcome news to the early childhood community and policy makers.

More recent studies continue to show long-term benefits for participants now well into their 40s. These studies are getting attention perhaps because the public is now more receptive or perhaps because many were conducted by James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics from the University of Chicago.

Early education programs work. They are an investment in a long-term economic return that benefits the participants, their families and our economy. An economic investment is an important part of the argument for universal pre-K, yet it is only part of the story — an important part, but only part.

Universal pre-K provides a sound beginning to education as the cornerstone for our democratic society. Focusing primarily on the economic returns of early education diminishes the full value of such programs.

While early education can prepare a better workforce which can lead to a stronger economy, this does not necessarily guarantee a stronger citizenry which can guarantee a stronger democracy. Workforce preparation can prepare better skilled workers but it is not designed to prepare better citizens.

I became an early childhood educator nearly 30 years ago. No one in the field then, and for that matter, few in the field now, considered themselves in workforce preparation.

Our goal, then and now, was to create educational programs and experiences that nurtured children's minds, hearts, bodies and souls — in short, their well-being. Quality early education programs do this and more.

The benefits of quality programs for young children include but go well beyond the narrower vision of economic returns.

Yes, everyone needs the knowledge and skills to enter the workforce, but our democracy needs more. Through quality programs that focus on young children's intellectual, social, moral, affective and physical development, they gain the knowledge, skills and abilities for becoming engaged citizens.

Aside from the fact that many other advanced countries provide universal pre-K and the U.S. does not, there are the moral investments and the moral arguments: Providing universal pre-K is the right and just thing to do. This seems pretty simple and straight forward.

To deny early education to the young children who are most in need of such programs and who will benefit the most from them is to deny them the opportunity to flourish.

To paraphrase John Dewey, the famous "philosopher of education": What every parent wants for his child is what we should want for all our children

Our moral investment then, in the words of Amartya Sen, another Nobel Prize-winning economist, should be to give children opportunities to live "lives they value and desire."

Cary A. Buzzelli is a professor of early childhood education at Indiana University Bloomington.

No: Early Education push will spend billions, fail just like Head Start

By Lindsey M. Burke

Mcclatchy-tribune news service

WASHINGTON — During his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proclaimed that "every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime."

Sounds impressive, but that "return on investment" figure reflects a lot of wishful thinking.

It appears to be based on the Perry Preschool Project, a study conducted more than 50 years ago in Ypsilanti, Mich. The Perry Project tracked 123 low-income, "at risk" children, 58 of whom were assigned to a treatment group that received high-intervention preschool services — everything from structured classroom instruction to weekly home visits.

Following the participants through age 40, the Perry program found those in the treatment group were more likely to be employed, to have graduated from high school, and to earn more than the control group. They were also less likely to have been arrested five or more times by age 40. As a result, Perry researchers claim a $7.16 return on every dollar invested.

But the findings from the Perry Preschool Project have never been replicated in state preschool programs. To make generalizations from this small, high-intervention program to a large-scale program would require what researcher Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution calls "prodigious leaps of faith."

Indeed, it is more likely that the president's universal preschool proposal will produce results like those logged by state programs in Georgia and Oklahoma.

President Obama claimed that evaluations of these programs "show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own." But in the words of the great song lyricist Ira Gershwin, "It ain't necessarily so."

Georgia has had universal preschool for all 4-year-olds since 1995, yet graduation rates have failed to significantly improve. In Oklahoma, home to taxpayer-funded preschool since 1998, graduation rates have actually declined.

And, as researchers Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation point out, universal preschool has failed to reduce the reading achievement gap between white and black children.

In Oklahoma, the gap has remained completely unchanged — a 22 point gap on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Nor has it improved significantly in Georgia, where white children post reading scores 23 points — roughly two grade levels — higher than their black peers.

Moreover, President Obama's universal preschool proposal might not even perform as well as the Georgia and Oklahoma programs. His far larger-scale program is far more likely to look like the failed Head Start program.

Despite taxpayer "investment" of nearly $8 billion per year, Head Start consistently fails to reap a return for either taxpayers or participating children.

In December 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that administers Head Start, released a scientifically rigorous evaluation of more than 5,000 children participating in the program.

It found that Head Start had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health or parenting practices of participants.

Excellence in early education requires abandoning the presumption that preschool for all is preferable to family care. It also requires eliminating ineffective programs, and reforming those that remain.

There are ways to improve early childhood education. Making Washington the nation's nanny is not the way to do so.

Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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