The Agenda

The President’s Preschool Agenda

Clare McCann of the New America Foundation has a rundown on what we know and what we don’t know about President Obama’s commitment to making pre-K more widely available. Like Matt Yglesias, she points to the Center for American Progress’s Investing In Our Children report as a source of clues as to where the Obama administration might want to go. McCann writes:

There was some speculation before the address that the president might propose something along the lines of the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) new Investing in Our Children report. The CAP plan, though, is very ambitious and expensive. It includes a state-matching program of up to $10,000 per pre-K child annually, greater access for more children under the federal child care program, new quality measures for early learning programs and an expansion of Early Head Start. Its price tag comes close to $200 billion over 10 years. 

The president was silent last night on whether more funds would be available, or from where. But given statutory restrictions on the next decade of federal spending under the Budget Control Act of 2011, a significantly larger early education investment from Congress seems out of reach. [Emphasis added]

In light of our recent discussions of cartel federalism, consider the logic of CAP’s joint federal-state venture. States that choose to spend $10,000 of their own funds per child will receive a federal matching grant of $10,000. Those those choose to spend $5,000 of their own funds will only receive $5,000. So there is a powerful incentive to spend more. States that are reluctant to impose a heavy tax burden on their own citizens will be nudged to move in this direction, as failing to do so will mean that they are not maximizing their take from federal coffers. Affluent states will have a somewhat easier time getting to $10,000 than poorer states, yet poorer states are presumably the ones with limited fiscal capacity and greater need whatever value pre-K programs offer young children.

CAP assesses the cost to the federal government over and above existing spending:

The estimated 10-year federal cost is $98.4 billion over existing spending levels. Our plan phases in over five years—first enrolling low-income children and expanding to full coverage by the end of the fifth year. Once the program is fully scaled, it will cost an additional $12.3 billion per year.

This implies that state-level spending will also increase by a considerable amount as states angle to receive federal matching funds.

In fairness, one could argue that these on-budget costs will also mitigate the off-budget costs of early child care to households and firms. Perhaps government-sponsored pre-K will have scale efficiencies. It is also possible, however, that these pre-K programs will prove more expensive than anticipated as it proves difficult to identify and hire high-quality personnel, as unionized employees bargain for work rules and compensation levels that limit flexibility and openness to business model innovation, and as poor performance is met with appeals for increased funding from the newly-expanded constituency of pre-K providers.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst — one day I hope my byline becomes Reihan M. “Reihan” Salam — offers a hard-headed look at existing pre-K programs. He observes that pre-K programs have already experienced a dramatic expansion, which leads me to think that we might want to learn about whether or not this expansion has yielded dividends before we go for another round:

The movement for universal and targeted state pre-K has been successful in that enrollment in state-funded pre-K programs for 4-year-olds has doubled in the last 10 years, from 14% to 28% of all 4-year-olds. There has been a concomitant increase in annual spending from about $2.5 to $4.5 billion. Annual spending per child for state pre-K is about $4,000. Thirty-nine states offer state-funded pre-K, with 31 of those states having programs that are targeted for low-income families. When children enrolled in Head Start and other public programs, including special education, are combined with those in state funded pre-K, 42% of the 4-year-olds in the nation are enrolled in a taxpayer funded center-based preschool programs.[1]

According to Whitehurst, many advocates of early childhood interventions point to the success of the Perry Preschool Project and Abecedarian:

In my view, generalizations to state pre-K programs from research findings on Perry and Abecedarian are prodigious leaps of faith. Perry and Abecedarian were multi-year intensive interventions whereas state pre-K programs are overwhelmingly one year programs for four-year-olds. Costs per participant for Perry and Abecedarian were multiples of the levels of investment in present-day state preschool programs, e.g., $90,000 per child for Abecedarian.[3] Both Perry and Abecedarian were small hothouse programs (less than 100 participants) run by very experienced, committed teams, whereas widely deployed present day preschool programs are, well, widely deployed. The circumstances of the very poor families of the Black children who were served by these model programs 30 to 40 years ago are very different from those faced by the families that are presently served by publicly funded preschool programs. For example, nearly half of the four-year-olds in Head Start today are Hispanics, whereas there were no Hispanic children in Abecedarian or Perry. And 40 years ago other government supports for low-income families were at much lower levels and pre-K was not widely available for anyone, much less the poor. Thus, even without the recent findings from Head Start there would be reason to be skeptical that today’s typical state preschool programs for four-year-olds are producing the large benefits that accrued to participants in Perry and Abecedarian.

But we do have the Head Start findings I reviewed last week and we should not ignore them in thinking about state pre-K. Head Start spends about twice as much per child per year as states ($8K per child per year for Head Start vs. $4K for state pre-K). And Head Start includes many program components that are advocated by early childhood experts such as health, nutrition, and parental involvement that are much less prevalent in state pre-K. If a year of Head Start does not improve achievement in elementary school, should we assume that a year of state pre-K does?

Whitehurst ends his post by arguing that we need systems in place that will allow scholars and policymakers to make more rigorous assessments of the efficacy of early childhood interventions, which sounds right to me.

My biases:

(a) pre-K programs, whether universal or targeted, might be worth pursuing at some level of investment, but given that we don’t really know much about them, we’d be better served by investing federal dollars into researching existing federal and state programs and developing yardsticks for measuring quality rather than rolling out yet another expansion of pre-K programs;

(b) pre-K programs are best left to state governments, which can compete with other states either by offering superior pre-K programs that make a measurable contribution to quality of life and workforce quality or by leaving the voluntary sector and private firms to meet the demand for pre-K programs, leaving local taxpayers with more disposable income — I don’t think the outcome of this competition is predetermined, though my sense is that advocates of federalization are convinced that a “race to the bottom” will always take hold over a “race to the top.”

So while I’m cautiously optimistic about the president’s higher education agenda, in part because the higher education market has been thoroughly nationalized for some time, his approach to pre-K merits skepticism, including from those who favor the expansion of access to pre-K at the state level.

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

Most Popular


Questions for Those Who Believed Jussie Smollett

The “we reported the Jussie Smollett case responsibly” contention has been blasted to smithereens. Twitter accounts and headlines in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times reported as fact Jussie Smollett’s wildly implausible allegations, and many other journalists did so as ... Read More

Regular Order

Jussie Smollett’s story has always sounded a little . . . extraordinary. Smollett, who appears on the television series Empire, says he was attacked on the streets of Chicago at 2 a.m. by two men who shouted racial and homophobic abuses at him, beat him, doused him with bleach, and fastened a noose around ... Read More