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Keep Uncle Sam Away from Toddlers!
The Case Against Government Funding for Preschool
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by Carrie Lukas

Among President Obama's campaign promises was his promise to increase the federal government's commitment to early childhood education. Specifically, on their campaign website, candidates Obama and Biden describe their "Zero to Five Plan," which would emphasize not only expanding educational opportunities to three- and four-year-olds, who are typically not yet eligible for public kindergarten, but also "early care and education for infants." Specifically, President Obama pledged to create "Early Learning Challenge Grants" that would be given to states to support their efforts providing educational opportunities for those under age five and to help move states toward "voluntary, universal preschool."

The President and Democratic Congress have already begun to expand federal government support for early learning initiatives. The $787 billion economic stimulus package (officially entitled the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) included more than $1 billion over two years for the federal Head Start program, which supports educational opportunities for three- and four-year-olds from low-income families, and $1.1 billion over two years for the Early Head Start program, which supports initiatives for infants, toddlers, and pregnant women. Other money included in the stimulus package for education programs (such as funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Title I) will also be used by states to bolster early learning programs.

Supporters of these programs believe they will better prepare young children for school, improve students' education, and lead to better life outcomes. For example, during a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Obama argued:

Studies show that children in early childhood education programs are more likely to score higher in reading and math, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, more likely to hold a job, and more likely to earn more in that job. For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health care costs, and less crime.

Yet as this policy brief highlights, policymakers shouldn't assume that such results will attend expanded government support of preschool, especially as government's support expands beyond the low-income or "at risk" student population.

Does Preschool Improve Student Outcomes?

Those supporting increased government provision of preschool typically suggest that the money invested in such programs pays off by creating much larger benefits for individuals and society at large. They claim that high-quality preschool programs lead to improved student outcomes and ultimately a more educated, productive workforce and expanded tax base. Yet a balanced look at the available research on the effects of preschool should give policymakers pause.

Most evaluations of preschool programs which are cited as evidence of their great potential benefits have analyzed programs that serve low-income children and those considered at risk of failing to thrive in traditional public school. And even when studies are focused on disadvantaged populations, the research is far from a slam dunk in proving preschool's long-term efficacy. As Darcy Olsen, an education analyst and president of the Goldwater Institute, writes:

Taken as a whole, a review of the research shows that some early interventions have had meaningful short-term effects on disadvantaged students' cognitive ability, grade-level retention, and special education placement. However, most research also indicates that the effects of early interventions disappear after children leave the programs.

The program that is most frequently touted as evidence of the great potential benefits of universal preschool is the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project. And indeed, this study, which began in the 1960s and has followed an experimental and control group for 40 years, has found meaningful benefits enjoyed by those who participated in the program on a range of outcomes, including high-school graduation rates, adult crime, and earnings. Yet as education analysts from the Lexington Institute explain:

It's important to note that there were only 58 preschoolers in the experimental group (and 123 in all, including the control group), and all were not only disadvantaged but deemed at risk for "retarded intellectual functioning and eventual school failure." They received one or two years of half-day preschool and home visitations. This was certainly not a large or representative group, not even of the disadvantaged populations, and it is a real stretch to generalize results into a rationale for pouring billions of dollars into public pre-K for all, including the children of affluent families.

Evaluations done on Head Start, the federal program dedicated to providing preschool opportunities for low-income families, are also not encouraging. Generally, studies show initial modest gains in terms of student abilities and outcomes, but those gains quickly dissipate. By early elementary school, researchers could find no differences between the test scores of those who had participated in Head Start and those of their peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds who hadn't participated in a preschool program.

Even many proponents of preschool programs for those in the low-income or at-risk population have cautioned against assuming that the benefits enjoyed by that population would translate into similar benefits for the general population. James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, makes the case for increased investment in early education programs for disadvantaged populations because of his belief in its potential for significant payoffs. However, when asked about universal preschool programs, he reiterated the case for targeted programs, explaining, "Functioning middle-class homes are producing healthy, productive kids. . . . It is foolish to try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing."

And indeed, if more preschool were a surefire way to improve student outcomes among the general population, one would expect to find ample evidence of that dynamic already occurring. Several states have implemented aggressive preschool programs and there is little to suggest that it is paying off in terms of improving the states' overall education climate. As education analysts from the Reason Foundation wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

[T]he results from Oklahoma and Georgia — both of which implemented universal preschool a decade or more ago — paint an equally dismal picture. A 2006 analysis by Education Week found that Oklahoma and Georgia were among the ten states that had made the least progress on NAEP. Oklahoma, in fact, lost ground after it embraced universal preschool: in 1992 its 4th- and 8th-graders tested one point above the national average in math. Now they are several points below. Ditto for reading. Georgia's universal preschool program has made virtually no difference to its 4th-grade reading scores.

Rates of preschool attendance have soared during recent decades. The Department of Education estimated that, in 1965, 5% of three-year-olds and 16% of four-year-olds attended preschool. By the beginning of this decade, 42% of three-year-olds and 68% of four-year-olds were enrolled in preschool. Yet the data on important educational outcomes — from performance on nationalized tests to graduation rates — has shown no significant gains during this period, and in some cases have declined.

There is also cause for concern that encouraging greater enrollment in preschool may not just fail to produce positive results, but it could lead to some adverse outcomes. Some research has suggested that increased enrollment in preschool programs could lead to problem behaviors. For example, one study conducted by researchers at Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley concluded that kindergartners who had attended more than 15 hours of preschool each week were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior in class.

Negative behavioral effects would likely be particularly pronounced if the government moves in the direction of President Obama's "Zero to 5" proposal to encourage the enrollment of babies and young toddlers. There is significant evidence to suggest that there is a link between the amount of time young children spend outside of their parents' care and behavioral problems. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, for example, conducted a study of children in ten geographic sites who were followed from birth to kindergarten, and found an association between greater amount of non-maternal care and behavioral problems:

The more time children spend in any of a variety of non-maternal care arrangements across the first 4.5 years of life, the more externalizing problems and conflict with adults they manifest at 54 months of age and in kindergarten, as reported by mothers, caregivers, and teachers. . . . More time in care not only predicts problem behavior measured on a continuous scale but at-risk (though not clinical) levels of problem behavior, as well as assertiveness, disobedience, and aggression. It should also be noted that these correctional findings also imply that lower levels of problems were associated with less time in child care.

In summary, the evidence simply does not support the claims of universal preschool proponents that an investment in early education will pay off in terms of improving the educational and life prospects of the general population.

Problems with Existing Government-Run Schools

Before lawmakers extend the responsibilities of the public education system to include three- and four-year-olds, it would be prudent to examine how it is performing its existing duties in serving students eligible for kindergarten through 12th grade.

President Obama himself has been critical of the performance of many public schools, and indeed, a look at the statistics on our public school system's performance is sobering. The National Assessment of Educational Progress regularly shows that the system is failing too many of its students: in 2007, one-third of 4th -graders and one-quarter of 8th-graders scored "below basic" in reading, and nearly 20% of 4th-graders and 30% of 8th-graders scored "below basic" in math. More than one-quarter of American children don't graduate from high school. And, as President Obama noted, the United States often lags behind other developed nations on academic tests despite spending more on education.

The disheartening performance of the public school system should caution those who would believe that greater government involvement in the lives and education of our youngest children will necessarily improve their prospects. Lawmakers would be better off focusing on identifying why the public school system regularly fails so many of its charges instead of expanding its mandate in education.


While lawmakers rarely seem concerned about the Founders' intentions, it is worth noting that there is nothing in the Constitution to suggest that using taxpayer money to support preschool programs is a proper role for the federal government. Policymakers claim that using taxpayer money to fund more access to preschool enhances the greater good, but there is little evidence to suggest that this holds true for the general population. There is also reason for concern that there would be unintended consequences to pushing greater enrollment in publicly-supported preschool programs, both for individual students and for the education system as a whole. Lawmakers would do better to focus on improving the existing K-12 education system, instead of seeking to expand it; and on helping families provide for their children by reducing their tax burden.

Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women's Forum and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex and Feminism

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