The spotlight is on universal preschool. In both this year’s and last year’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama called on Congress to support his Preschool for All initiative, which would extend high-quality preschool to every low- and middle-income four-year-old in the country through a partnership with all 50 states. The program would cost a hefty $75 billion over a decade. Nevertheless, 60 percent of Republican voters, 64 percent of independents, and 84 percent of Democrats support it, according to a July poll by the First Five Years Fund. Despite the initiative’s bipartisan support, is universal preschool as great in practice as it seems to be in theory?
The federal government has gotten its feet wet in implementing a large-scale preschool program with Head Start, which provides preschool and other services to improve low-income children’s elementary school readiness. But it is clear that Head Start has not produced meaningful results when the statistics are scrutinized. According to the government’s Head Start Impact Study, conducted with a representative sample of almost 5,000 three- and four-year-olds randomly assigned to either Head Start or a program their parents chose, the cognitive gains for children in Head Start disappeared almost entirely by first grade. The lack of convincing statistical evidence of any advantage for Head Start students over their peers calls into question whether the government can create a universal preschool program that truly benefits the children — and society — it is meant to serve.
Supporters of universal preschool initiatives assert that a universal preschool program’s economic return to society is greater than the money spent on the program and point to research carried out decades ago. The most frequently cited, the Perry Preschool study, was undertaken between 1962 and 1967 by a team of researchers at the educational research foundation High/Scope who randomly assigned 58 out of 123 at-risk African-American children in Ypsilanti, Mich., to a high-quality preschool program (complete with 1.5-hour-long teacher visits to students’ homes) and followed up with the participants until they turned 40. The researchers found promising results: The former preschool students were more likely to graduate from high school, were more likely to be employed at age 40, and were arrested fewer times than the participants in the control group. Taking into account all the savings to society across the participants’ lifetimes, the researchers concluded that the economic benefit to society of the program came out to about $16 per dollar initially invested.
Another longitudinal study, the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program, followed 989 low-income children enrolled in preschool between 1983 and 1986 and compared their outcomes to those of 550 children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in other preschools. The Child-Parent Center provided family-support services, health care, educational services, and free meals. The study found that each dollar invested in the program saved society about $7.
But these studies are not generalizable to modern America for two reasons. The Society for Research in Child Development notes that it is hard to pin down the exact rate of return on a universal preschool program. Even the Perry authors wrote that their estimate of the program’s societal benefit may in fact be conservative since it omits benefits that are difficult, if not impossible, to monetize. If determining the exact benefit to society of a preschool program is difficult, a $75 billion initial investment may not be the wisest choice. Second, providing all of the services that students were offered in each study would require substantial financial resources that austere and cash-strapped state and local governments may be unwilling or unable to put forth. But if governments forgo the gold standard in universal preschool programs, the cost savings may not hold later on.
Russ Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, has published a multitude of blog posts criticizing the designs of studies of universal preschool programs, referencing contextual problems with the studies. In one post, Whitehurst argues that the studies “are from a time when very little of today’s safety net for the poor was in place, when center-based care for four-year-olds was rare and even kindergarten was not the rule, and before the wave of Hispanic immigration that transformed the demographics of early education programs for children from low-income families.” Much has changed in the 50 years since the Perry study. The same program might not have the same spectacular effects in today’s demographic landscape — or it might not even work at all. Even more troublesome for the universal-preschool cause is that the Head Start Impact Study, released in 2010, fails to demonstrate that Head Start produces great benefits in the modern context of changed demographics.
Whitehurst recommends that instead of providing preschool to every child in the country, the federal government should focus on defraying the cost of sending the most disadvantaged children to truly high-quality preschool programs — a sensible trial run that would tease out the long-term costs and benefits of preschool. Before we cash such a big check for a monumental national program, the fundamental logic and thought processes behind universal preschool should be grounded in rationale at least as stable as the block towers built by our four-year-olds.