The Agenda

The Lessons of Universal Pre-Kindergarten in Oklahoma

Jennifer Doverspike makes the case against universal pre-kindergarten:

One study indicates that for disadvantaged children, any sort of center-based care provides a comparative advantage over parental care or informal familial care. The study is complicated by the fact the parents self-reported the type of care their child received and the fact they received a mix of care. Nevertheless, the results of the study seem to be consistent with conventional wisdom: Those disadvantaged students benefited most from pre-kindergarten collocated with the elementary school, less from private preschool, and even less from center-based daycare. But all had a positive effect in comparison to no center-based care at all. Preschool benefits children from disadvantaged families far more than it benefits children from families that already provide the socio-emotional support, learning tools, and exposure to literacy as a natural and holistic part of child-rearing. One way it does so is by neutralizing the effects of a negative home environment.

The corollary to the benefit disadvantaged children may receive from preschool is if you are an educated parent who spends time talking and learning with your children, your child probably will not gain any extra educational benefit from preschool. Oklahoma makes the classic mistake of assuming the government can do a better job of providing for our children than parents. A well-off parent can afford to send a child to a quality daycare, Mother’s Day Out program, or preschool if care during the day is required (or desired). An engaged parent can provide “education” necessary for a young child by letting him or her play — a solution far better than formal education which can hinder a child’s learning skills or negatively impact more rambunctious children, especially boys.

Doverspike offers a detailed assessment of Oklahoma’s universal pre-kindergarten efforts, including Tulsa’s well-regarded universal pre-k program, and she concludes that any educational gains have been exceedingly modest. (She also observes, in passing, that per pupil spending in the U.S. is the highest in the OECD, yet educational outcomes in the U.S. are, as we’ve discussed, lackluster in comparison to other market democracies.) And she also identifies alternative policies, e.g., encouraging the emergence of a wider variety of pre-k providers, focusing pre-k resources of children from disadvantaged households, and focusing on the needs of parents, as mitigating parental stress can help improve the lives of children. To meet the needs of middle-income parents, she proposes a three-pronged approach: (a) education accounts (perhaps something like Rick Hess’s K-12 spending accounts); (b) vouchers; and (c) additional tax incentives for firms that provide high-quality childcare options.

I’m sympathetic to Doverspike’s analysis, though I’m generally skeptical about the use of tax incentives. One issue that she doesn’t address in great detail is the labor market impact of universal pre-kindergarten, i.e., universal early education facilitates the employment of parents, and particularly mothers. Lane Kenworthy has observed that roughly half of pre-school-age children in the U.S. are enrolled in out-of-home care, and one could argue that state-financed universal early education is preferable to the lightly-regulated status quo, as it promises a more consistent experience. Though this argument is not to be taken lightly — increasing the labor force participation of the parents of young children would have real value, and limiting career interruptions would tend to increase productivity and wages — the question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and I’m not sure that they do. The reason high-quality early education is expensive is that it is a labor-intensive undertaking, and skilled workers are in high demand. Business model innovation could alleviate this problem over time; but rigid regulations designed to ensure quality will make organizational innovation less likely. So like Doverspike, my inclination would be to support more narrowly-targeted programs. I’d also be open to efforts to expand the pool of child-care workers. 

P.S. The Spring 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives includes a broad overview of research on preschool programs by Greg J. Duncan and Katherine Magnuson:

We summarize the available evidence on the extent to which expenditures on early childhood education programs constitute worthy social investments in the human capital of children. We begin with a short overview of existing early child- hood education programs, and then summarize results from a substantial body of methodologically sound evaluations of the impacts of early childhood education. We fifind that the evidence supports few unqualifified conclusions. Many early childhood education programs appear to boost cognitive ability and early school achievement in the short run. However, most of them show smaller impacts than those generated by the best-known programs, and their cognitive impacts largely disappear within a few years. Despite this fade-out, long-run follow-ups from a handful of well-known programs show lasting positive effects on such outcomes as greater educational attainment, higher earnings, and lower rates of crime. Since findings regarding short and longer-run impacts on “noncognitive” outcomes are mixed, it is uncertain what skills, behaviors, or developmental processes are particularly important in producing these longer-run impacts.

Much of the article is concerned with understanding the relationship between the short-run fade-out in cognitive gains and the apparent long-run boost in other measures of well-being.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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