Letting States Experiment with Pre-K Funding: Will They Just Follow the Wishes of the Education Establishment?

Kudos to Senator Mike Lee and Representative Matt Salmon for proposing a new approach to early-education policy on the home page yesterday. The lawmakers recognize that the nation’s largest preschool program, Head Start, has failed to demonstrate any persistent impacts when subjected to rigorous evaluation. They propose to cancel federal funding for Head Start and send the money to the states for pre-K education. “It’s time to distribute [Head Start’s] funds to the states and let them experiment,” they write.

Any proposal that eliminates spending on Head Start is a positive step. But is it wise to simply give the money to states?

Early education policy involves a couple of major challenges. First, we don’t know what works. There is no special formula, no secret education sauce, that has been consistently shown to have long-lasting effects on children. Therefore, states would have little guidance as to how to “experiment” with the federal money. They would likely follow the advice of the public-education establishment, which does not exactly have a great track record in converting taxpayer dollars into achievement gains.

The second challenge is that it’s difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of preschool once it has been implemented. To confidently attribute cognitive, behavioral, or health-related impacts to a preschool program requires a large-scale randomized experiment. States are sometimes called the “laboratories of democracy,” but laboratories are most useful when literal experiments are conducted in them. How many states are prepared to conduct one?

So, although Lee and Salmon are right to defund Head Start, distributing the money to the states may not generate the thriving marketplace of preschool ideas that they envision.

Congress should instead consider David Armor and Sonia Sousa’s proposal in National Affairs: Take the federal money currently spent on preschool and use it to fund a multitude of early-education experiments modeled on the Head Start Impact Study. More experiments could formally test the theories — some would say excuses — advanced by preschool advocates as to why previous programs have proven ineffective. The evaluations might reveal what works, or they might produce a steady stream of null effects that humbles the social planners. Either way, the results would help policymakers make decisions based on evidence rather than intuition.

Jason Richwine — Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.

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