As with all of tonight’s policy proposals, we wonks will be scouring the fine print in the days to come to determine their merits. When it comes to expanding pre-school programs, the details matter a lot. 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.
What would be refreshing would be an effort to target scarce resources on the neediest kids; to ensure that programs work to build vocabulary through a knowledge-based curriculum, as E. D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for years; and to encourage private and for-profit pre-K providers to be part of the solution. That would be “smarter,” rather than “bigger,” government. We’ll see.
— Michael Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.