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Preschool Won’t Solve Everything



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Former top economist for President Obama Austan Goolsbee is the latest to promote increasing government-funded preschool in an op-ed today for The Wall Street Journal:

The longest-term data on early education comes from the 1962-67 Perry Preschool Project study in Ypsilanti, Mich., that randomly assigned kids into an early-education program of 2.5 hours a day with follow-up visits from the teachers and followed the children in the program through the decades and into their 40s.

The result? Mr. Heckman and his colleagues have documented that children who attend high-quality preschool programs learn better, behave better, live healthier and earn more for the rest of their lives. They help themselves and help the economy. In the Michigan case, the benefits from the preschool investments were six to seven times their cost, with rates of return between 7% and 10% annually—which, Mr. Heckman notes, exceeds the historical returns of the stock market.

Goolsbee goes on to remark:

Granted, quality doesn’t come cheap. The generally accepted level of spending to achieve excellent early education is $10,000 annually per student, though the long-term benefits far exceed the money spent.

There’s just one caveat. In today’s dollars, the Perry Preschool Project wouldn’t cost ten grand a student – it would be $19,000 a year per student. From FactCheck.org:

In regard to Obama’s claims about a cost-to-benefit ratio of 1-to-7, the White House pointed specifically to a study led by James J. Heckman at the University of Chicago of the Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Mich., that concluded “each dollar invested returns in present value terms 7 to 12 dollars back to society.”

The Perry program targeted disadvantaged African-American youth in the early 1960s, and academics tracked the progress of 123 students — including a control group that did not get into the program — through age 40. The two-year program cost about $19,000 per student in today’s dollars, and included in-home visits (participants had to have stay-at-home mothers).

To put that $19,000 in perspective, the government is currently spending about $12,743 per public school student. In other words, there’s no way the government is suddenly going to start spending $19,000 on preschool kids.

Nor does it seem plausible that there are a significant number of low-income preschool kids where one parent can afford to stay-at-home (even assuming the kids are fortunate enough to have both parents around).

Right now, preschool results are decidedly mixed. The government’s own study of Head Start, which serves low-income children, showed that by third grade, there was virtually no difference between low-income children who had attended Head Start and those who hadn’t: “In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices,” the study concluded.

Preschool advocates would do well to first work on making the already-existing Head Start actually effective rather than push for greater expansion of government-funded preschool. 



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