Universal pre-k is not okay
New governor of the People’s Republic of California wants to expand a dubious universal preschool plan.
California’s new Governor Gavin Newsom envisions a future where the state will be involved in your children’s lives from conception to adulthood. Newsom told EdSource in September, “Our role begins when babies are still in the womb and it doesn’t end until we’ve done all we can to prepare them for a quality job and successful career.”
Newsom refers to his nanny-state-on-steroids plan as the “California Promise.” If his massive scheme is realized, the only certain promise is that even higher taxes are in store for a state that has already been accurately dubbed as Taxifornia. Particularly pernicious is his idea for universal preschool for 4-year-olds. And that ball is already rolling, as Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty introduced three bills in December that would expand preschool to allow more 3- and 4-year-olds to attend.
There are many problems here. First off, the failing k-12 system in the formerly Golden State is not exactly an enticement to send your kids off for yet another year of subpar education. Our latest NAEP (nation’s report card) scores are pathetic. On the 2017 test, we were near the bottom nationally, with 69 percent of 4th grade students not proficient in both math and reading.
And just what kind of track record does preschool have? A pretty bad one, in fact. Study after study has shown it is an extraordinary waste of money. The last great push for universal pre-k in California – renamed transitional kindergarten (TK) – went down to defeat in 2014. At the time, I wrote that pre-k accomplishes little more than adding unionized teaching and educational support jobs to the state’s payroll – a state that is already over a trillion dollars in debt. Oh, sure, the sales pitch sounds great. As State Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg said, “Expanding transitional kindergarten can be accomplished with just a fraction of increased Proposition 98 funds while saving billions of dollars in the long run by reducing the extra costs of special education, grade retention and juvenile crime.”
In fact, the U.S. has a near 50-year history of funding early-childhood programs in the form of Head Start. The federal government released the last of a three-part longitudinal study of the $8 billion-a-year program in 2012, and the results offered little cause for jubilation. According to the report’s executive summary: “…there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.” The 2012 report reinforced some disappointing findings from the study’s second phase, which showed that any gains “had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.”
Other studies purporting to show preschool’s benefits also have failed to prove that spending billions on pre-k would be money well spent. Two oft-cited studies, the famous Abecedarian and Perry Preschool projects, for example, are now nearly 50 years old and involved no more than 60 children. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray wrote in 2013, both studies “were overseen by the same committed, well-intentioned people who conducted the demonstration projects. Evaluations of social programs are built around lots of judgment calls—from deciding how the research is designed to figuring out how to analyze the data. People with a vested interest in the results shouldn’t be put in the position of making those judgments.”
Also in 2013, the Brookings Institution’s Grover J. Whitehurst wrote, the group that went through the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program, a full day program for 4‐year‐olds from low-income families “performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though of the children in the control group had no experience as 4-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.” Whitehurst concludes: “Until the field of early education becomes evidence based, it will be doomed to cycles of fad and fancy.”
Just last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel rolled out a $175 million plan to offer pre-k to all 4-year-olds by 2021-22. Commenting on the proposal, education scholars Lance Izumi and Kerry McDonald write that its proponents “often cite the results of an earlier effort, the Chicago Child-Parent Center program for low-income children, to bolster their case for universal preschool.” But it turns out that the Chicago Child-Parent Center program “relied on extensive parent training, a feature notably absent from universal preschool proposals such as Assemblyman McCarty’s in California.”
Izumi and McDonald add, “As psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson noted, if policymakers mistakenly believe that preschool results in better life outcomes, “they may mistakenly invest in these programs when the money might be better invested in parenting-skill programs or other interventions to increase parental involvement.”
Clearly voluntary parental skills programs show much more promise than Newsom’s unproven universal pre-k plan. California’s new state budget will be released soon. Have the smelling salts nearby.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.