Wishful thinking for state pre-kindergarten

By Micah Clark

Recently, the PBS show Indiana Lawmakers ended with Republican Speaker of the House Brian Bosma saying, “I’d like to triple it,” when asked about Indiana’s $10 million government preschool pilot program. Democrat Senate minority leader, Tim Lanane, embraced universal Pre-K, noting that a good start would have positive impacts throughout a child’s school career.

It all sounds good.

Unfortunately, similar enthusiasm and extravagant spending on government preschool has failed to actually help children.

In 1998, Oklahoma began one of the most ambitious Pre-K programs in the nation, spending nearly 15 times the amount of Indiana’s current pilot program. Oklahoma’s annual expenditure equated to $7,400 per student. That’s a massive state investment, even in 1998 dollars.

What were the results? Experts note that fourth-grade reading scores are key to showing the impact of an early childhood program. How did their scores change? Not at all. Thirty percent of Oklahoma fourth graders were proficient in 1998; 30 percent are proficient today.

Let’s look at Georgia. Since 1993, Georgia has offered all four-year-old children the opportunity to enroll in a government-funded preschool program. More than one million have been served. In 2008, 53 percent of Georgia’s 4-year-olds were in a state pre-K program with $4,200 spent on each pre-K student.

Georgia State University’s study of the effects of this program showed some positive gains, but many of these gains had dissipated within 2 years. The report stated, “By the end of first grade, children who did not attend preschool had skills similar to those of Georgia’s preschoolers.”

Supporters often argue that pre-K has benefits for low-income disadvantaged children, precisely the demographic already targeted by the federal government. Since 1965, the Federal Head Start program has provided early education, nutrition, and health services to low-income families throughout the United States.

Despite investments of more than $100 billion, Head Start has delivered meager results. A 2005 HHS study of low-income preschoolers revealed that Head Start had no effect at all on preschoolers in half of the 30 measured categories, including oral comprehension and mathematics. The report concluded that Head Start is not achieving its purpose of fostering school readiness. Still, taxpayers continue to fund Head Start tremendously.

The studies occasionally cited by supporters of pre-K all involve small sample sizes, heavy investments, and family interventions by government agents. None of those programs’ achievements have been replicated by the kind of state programs advocated by Indiana legislators or Governor Holcomb.

President Barack Obama and former Secretary Hillary Clinton have both referenced the most often cited study from pre-K advocates. The Perry Preschool study in Michigan involved only 123 children. It is from 1962. Not once has it been replicated by any state legislature’s effort. In today’s dollars, Perry equates to over $20,000 per preschool student. That is twice what Hoosier taxpayers spend per student, per year, for one K-12 grade level education.

Hoosier taxpayers and parents deserve far more than wishful thinking and good intentions in state education policy.

Why should legislators throw tens of millions more tax dollars at an educational idea that has failed to deliver on its assumptions and promises year after year, in state after state?

Most 4-year-olds attend preschool now, often in the private or faith-based sectors. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that vast majorities of children enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Hoosier lawmakers have a choice. Do they throw more money at a program expecting results other states have never achieved, or do they invest education dollars in areas with proven, lasting outcomes at higher grades where our schools begin to fall behind?

Micah Clark is executive director of the American Family Associated of Indiana. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.