Push for Universal Preschool Grows

Published October 1, 2005

The Institute for America’s Future and the Center for American Progress, co-chaired by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), on August 23 called for $325 billion in additional federal education spending over the next decade, including more than $9 billion a year to create a nationwide, universal preschool program.

Although the coalition has not released a specific plan, typical universal preschool proposals call for replacing the current largely private, parent-driven preschool system with a taxpayer-funded system that would likely add one or two years of “voluntary” preschool for all children onto the current K-12 public education system.

In 2005, at least 40 states provided some taxpayer funding for preschool programs, usually for at-risk children, and at least 28 considered legislation to begin doing so or expand their current funding. Eight states, including Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma now offer universal preschool.

The problem with such proposals, said Lance Izumi, director of education studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute (PRI), is, “in addition to the huge cost of transferring control from private providers to the government, the evidence for state-run preschool helping academic performance in later years is shaky at best.”

California Provides Test Case

California may become the national prototype for universal preschool. Hollywood director Rob Reiner is promoting “Preschool for All” as a June 2006 ballot initiative. Golden State taxpayers already spend more than $3 billion a year to subsidize preschool for low-income children. “Preschool for All” would generate at least $2.5 billion more per year to supply universal preschool, through a special tax on Californians who earn more than $400,000 annually.

Reiner’s plan is particularly interesting because the bulk of that $2.5 billion won’t be spent getting low-income kids ready for school–it will subsidize middle- and upper-income kids already attending preschool, as 66 percent of California’s four-year-olds currently do. Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said the initiative will increase preschool enrollment by just 11 percent statewide.

Universal preschool advocates in California base their claims for the benefits of preschool on a 2005 RAND Corporation study stating that making universal preschool available in California would yield $2.62 in benefits for every $1 spent.

Government-Run Programs Fail

But in a June 15 PRI newsletter column, Izumi offered a detailed critique of RAND’s research, pointing out the small sample sizes and questionable research techniques used to extrapolate the benefits of universal preschool for all children.

Goldwater Institute Executive Director Darcy Olsen, who has done extensive research on early education, corroborated Izumi’s findings.

“If early education programs were essential building blocks for success, we would expect to see at least some relationship between increased enrollment and student achievement,” Olsen said. In her 2005 study Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten, she wrote that after 10 years, Georgia’s universal preschool program “has served over 300,000 children at a cost of $1.15 billion and children’s test scores are unchanged.”

In addition, historical trends in preschool enrollment and later achievement are unpromising. The enrollment rate has climbed from 16 percent in 1965 to 66 percent in 2004, but despite the change from home education to formal early education, overall student achievement has stagnated since 1970.

Accountability Is Questionable

In addition, poor management and questionable educational quality have plagued some government-run preschool programs. Head Start, a voluntary, government-run early education program, should be a good indicator of the likely success of an expanded, national preschool program. A 2005 investigation by the House Committee on Education found that because of fraud and poor management, a significant share of the nearly $7 billion American taxpayers invest in Head Start annually never reaches disadvantaged children.

On August 15, the Los Angeles Times reported that a federal audit of the Los Angeles County Office of Education–one of the nation’s largest recipients of Head Start grants–found minor to severe safety, administrative, and fiscal problems. If Reiner’s initiative passes, that same office will control the entire Los Angeles preschool market.

In contrast to the state-run universal preschool model, the American Legislative Exchange Council says there are better ways to educate children without expanding the state education monopoly, such as tax credits for early education.

A tax credit approach, the organization says, could help create more quality preschools for low-income children, with the most efficiency for taxpayers and the greatest satisfaction for parents. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state expanded the existing K-12 corporate tax credit program in 2003, giving corporations a 100 percent credit for the first $10,000 and up to a 90 percent credit for remaining contributions up to $100,000. To date, $5 million a year is used to target Pennsylvania’s low-income children with preschool scholarships.

Lisa Snell ([email protected]) is education director at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.

For more information …

The Center for American Progress’s universal preschool program, Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for a Stronger Nation, is available online at http://www.americanprogress.org/site/pp.asp?c=biJRJ8OVF&b=994995.

The text of California’s “Preschool for All” initiative is available online at http://www.earlyeducation.org/pfa1.pdf.

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s model legislation addressing education is available online at http://www.heartland.org/IssueSuiteTopic.cfm?issId=3&istId=214

More research and commentary on preschool programs is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and choose the topic/subtopic combination Education/Preschool.