California, thanks to a bill that’s awaiting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature, may be about to launch a program to provide “transitional kindergarten.” The program seems harmless enough: It’s just a year of pre-kindergarten education available to children whose fifth birthday occurs in the fall. Better yet, the program is rated as cost-neutral by the California legislative analyst’s office, since it’s paired with the implementation of a new, earlier cut-off date. Today, to enroll in kindergarten in a given year, children have to turn five by December 2; over the program’s first three years, this deadline will be moved to September 1. This will reduce the number of students in the next few entering grades, saving the state $700 million annually as the smaller classes work their way through the system.
So what’s there to dislike? True, there are still a few fiscal questions, such as whether a state facing a $19 billion budget shortfall should be launching a new program rather than rejoicing in a (relatively) painless way to nab an extra $700 million a year. Or whether there’s any reason to believe that California will long be able to keep this program exclusively for the fall set (selected since they will no longer be able to attend kindergarten early), without parents of other youngsters raising an outcry over seasonal favoritism. Let them all in, and costs will presumably soar far over $700 million.
And there’s also the union-appeasement “ick” factor: The powerful California Teachers Association (which has dealt the Governator many a painful blow) initially opposed the legislation, which had slated half of the $700 million to be restored to the state’s general fund until legislators caved and allotted the whole amount to education programs.
But even with all that aside, this is a terrible program. The evidence shows that government-funded, large-scale early-education programs fail to deliver long-term educational benefits. If Californians introduce transitional kindergarten, they might provide a great free day care for parents, but they’re kidding themselves if they expect any higher test scores in the future. That’s what the data from Head Start, the federal program that provides preschool to low-income children, and from Georgia and Oklahoma, two states that have offered universal public pre-kindergarten for over a decade, show.
Head Start, launched by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 as part of his War on Poverty, has become well-entrenched over the years, garnering significant political support and funding, including an anticipated $8 billion–plus in the upcoming fiscal year. But according to a Department of Health and Human Services study released this January, the program has no long-term effect on participants’ academic success. The study followed 5,000 children, comparing Head Start attendees with those who were economically eligible for the program but did not attend. By the time the two groups of children completed first grade — just two years after they finished Head Start — their academic records were virtually identical.
It’s the same story in Georgia and Oklahoma. Comparing the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade scores in reading with the results from before universal preschool was instituted shows that students either fell behind or failed to catch up with the national average. In 1998, the year universal preschool began in Oklahoma, the average score was 219 — six points ahead of the national average. By 2009, the average score had dropped to 217, even as the national average shot up to 220. In Georgia, where universal preschool became available in 1995, student scores did improve, from 207 in 1994 to 218 in 2009 — from five below to two below the national average, hardly a dramatic boost. If universal preschool confers lasting academic benefits, shouldn’t those benefits have shown up in these states’ test scores, considering that very few states offer widespread public preschool?
The fourth-grade math scores also failed to show significant progress. In 1992, Georgia was three points behind the national average, and in 2009, remained three points behind. Oklahoma, which was tied with the national average in 2000 (two years after the program was begun, but before any of the students could have reached fourth grade), is now two points behind. Looking at the data from these two states and other government-funded preschool programs in a 2009 Heritage Foundation backgrounder, policy analyst Lindsey Burke concluded that “a broader examination of research evidence from existing preschool programs casts doubt on supporters’ claims that new spending on universal preschool programs will yield meaningful long-term benefits for students.”