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"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela

Universal Pre-K:  The Argument Against 

By Dr. Carole Hornsby Haynes  |  May 16, 2011 Texas Insider

During his campaign, President Obama pledged universal pre-kindergarten education, stating that not only do we need to enroll more children in pre-K, but should do so at an even earlier age.    

Since we continue to move the age lower and lower for mandatory education, one has to wonder if the government will be waiting outside delivery rooms to take charge of newborns in the near future. According to Texas Public Policy Foundation, “Implicit in the push for expanded pre-K and kindergarten is the presumption that the state should take more responsibility for educating young children.”   

As they are on many issues, politicians and business leaders are out of touch with the American people about early childhood education. 

The fundamental debate is not really about the expense or effectiveness of pre-K or kindergarten. 

Rather the issue is who should bear the responsibility for young children.  

Americans hold that we are endowed with “certain unalienable rights” including the primacy of the family over the state.  Thus state intrusion into early childhood education is in direct conflict with our freedom. 

In a study by the public opinion research organization, Public Agenda, more than 70% of parents with young children believe it is their responsibility to pay the costs of caring for their children, while only 1 in 4 prefers government mandated universal pre-K. 

To promote their agenda, proponents tout the benefits of  an American universal, national pre-K program similar to those of many European countries. 

They praise the well-known French universal pre-K that enrolls nearly all three- and four-year- olds.  However, U.S. fourth graders outperform their counterparts in France and in most other developed countries.   

Proponents also claim that pre-K has lasting benefits for student achievement but the facts refute this claim. 

Even though enrollment of four-year-olds in pre-K has increased from 16% in 1965 to 69% in 2004, one would expect student performance to increase as well.  However, research shows that academic gains “fade out” by third grade.

By the middle school years student achievement is on a downward spiral.  At 12th grade the U.S. is outranked by 86% of developed countries in math and 71% in science! 

Yet Sandra Feldman, president emeritus of the American Federation of Teachers, in a speech to the AFT QUEST Conference on July 12, 2001, contended that the United States “can’t afford not to” adopt a pre-K program similar to that of  France. 

To garner support for their push to gain control of the child at an ever earlier age, proponents use information from studies with biases and flawed data.  According to these studies, the state will actually make money through a widespread pre-K program. 

A May 2006 study by Texas A&M University claims that, for every $1 of taxes invested in universal pre-K, there will be a return of $3.50 to Texas communities through lower welfare and juvenile incarceration costs and higher future wages. 

Proponents also cite findings from other studies including the Perry Preschool project, which claims a return of $7 or more for each taxpayer dollar invested.  

Politicians and business leaders have leaped onto the bandwagon, citing these discredited studies as ample evidence that it makes prudent fiscal sense to implement universal early childhood government intervention. 

It seems only prudent that they do further research themselves before committing taxpayers to more government programs and more public debt and more taxes. 

The Texas A&M University study was patterned after the 2005 RAND study of the Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC).   However, there were several fundamental differences between the CPC study and the hypothetical universal program for Texas.    

The CPC study used only the most disadvantaged children in Chicago and required that parents participate in the learning experience. 

In later CPC programs parents were not required to participate in their children’s learning and their children did not perform as well as those whose parents had been involved.  

The CPC study did not include mainstream children yet it was assumed they would benefit from pre-K also. 

Since parental training and involvement will not be a requirement in universal pre-K, the claim for better student performance cannot be substantiated.  

The Texas A&M study also omitted and/or underestimated tangible costs. 

Texas Public Policy Foundation states that, “Overestimation of certain benefits and omission of some costs cast doubt upon the $3.50 return-per-dollar estimate so frequently cited in discussions of universal pre-k in Texas.” 

In spite of the Perry Preschool project being widely cited as evidence that universal pre-K brings a return on the taxpayer’s investment dollar  -- $7 or more -- it has been determined that this study was compromised by significant sampling and methodological errors.   

According to Ed Zigler, Head Start co-founder, the sampling used was not representative of children in general and possibly not even of the majority of economically disadvantaged children. 

Although this study was conducted from 1962-1965, no other study in the more than 40 years following has produced results as dramatic as those of the Perry Preschool project. 

After examining the results of several studies, including Chicago Parent Child Program, Perry Preschool, and Head Start, Texas Public Policy Foundation concluded that the “widespread adoption of pre-k is unlikely to improve student achievement.” 

A more recent study is the Tennessee pre-K project by Vanderbilt University Peabody Research Institute and presented on March 4, 2011.  Children from low-income families were included in the study.  It was found that children who attended state-funded Pre-K classes in Tennessee “gained an average of 82 percent more on early literacy and math skills than comparable children who did not have access to Pre- Kindergarten programs.” 

Nearly all pre-K studies target disadvantaged children, yet it is generalized that benefits will accrue to mainstream children also. 

However, according to David Weikart, past president of the foundation that was responsible for the Perry Preschool project, “For middle-class youngsters with a good economic basis, most programs are not able to show much in the way of difference.” 

The Rand Corporation in 2005 published a paper that stated there has been only one study on the long-term benefits of pre-K for non-disadvantaged children. It was concluded that “children in programs not targeted to disadvantaged populations were no better off than those not attending any preschool.” 

Although proponents tout the social benefit for young children, research findings conclude that with early formal training, mainstream children were more often likely to exhibit bullying and aggressive behavior and lacked self control and cooperation.   

The promise of politicians and business leaders is that universal pre-K is affordable and cost efficient.  

Most American children already attend pre-school, including private pre-school and childcare.   For those who cannot afford it, there are subsidies and free programs, such as Head Start.  

In Texas 55% of four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K -- either in state pre-K, Head Start, or public special education.  Together with those who are enrolled in private preschool, 85% of four-year-old Texans are enrolled in some type of center based care. 

With universal pre-K, Texas taxpayers would pay for every child -- 45% more on the public dole! 

How can this be affordable and cost efficient? 

It is a certainty that universal pre-K, like all government run programs, will be far greater in cost than the estimates. 

Making taxpayers pay for another government run program is fiscally and politically suicidal! 

Our politicians and business leaders must weigh all of the evidence, including the findings of the Head Start program, a program sold by President Johnson on the promise that early intervention could prevent poverty, delinquency, and welfare status. 

For decades we have seen all too many reforms that promised to improve our education system.  

The routine is well known by now -- new research studies are published and educators, politicians, and business leaders go into knee-jerk mode.  Without weighing all of the evidence and further research, new programs are set up with more expense and more debt incurred as people flock to jump on the latest bandwagon.  No one wants to be left off when those “in the know” or in prominent positions are leading the charge. 

If our children who are not at risk perform better with parental nurturing and education in early childhood  --  currently decentralized and flexible  --  but perform poorly after a few years in government run schools, why should parents be forced to turn their early childhood education over to the government? 

And why should taxpayers have to fund another government run program -- universal pre-K?  



Do Small Kids Need Big Government:  A Look at the Research Behind Government Preschool by Darcy Olsen with Jamie Story, Texas Public Policy Foundation (Feb. 2008)  http://www.texaspolicy.com/center/education-policy/reports/do-small-kids-need-big-government  

Myths and Facts About Pre-K in Texas by Jamie Story, Texas Public Policy Foundation (Jan. 2007) http://www.texaspolicy.com/center/education-policy/reports/myths-and-facts-about-pre-k-texas  

The Effects of Pre-kindergarten and Pre-kindergarten Curricula on Emergent Math and Literacy Skills, H.G. Hofer, Peabody Research Institute, Vanderbilt University (2011).  

Copyright ©2011 Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D., All rights reserved 




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