Research & Commentary: Latest Research on Government Preschool Programs

Published April 8, 2014

More and more states are adding or expanding government preschool programs, in spite of research that continues to show these programs have little or no long-term effects on needy children.

Head Start, a federal preschool program for low-income children, receives $9 billion in federal funds yearly, and U.S. Department of Education statistical evaluations of the program repeatedly have concluded program participants see no positive academic or behavioral effects beyond a minor bump in reading in first grade. High-quality studies of state-level preschool programs have reached almost identical conclusions. The only lasting benefits studies have shown for children who enroll in government preschool programs came from boutique, small-scale, expensive programs that have never been replicated in the 40 to 50 years since.

Proponents of introducing and expanding government-sponsored preschool programs highlight the importance of early childhood education particularly for poor and minority students who often do not receive the acculturation and structure necessary for future academic success. Since these children’s homes are such poor learning environments, proponents think it better to give children richer options guided by learned professionals.

Free-market and family advocates note the research on government-funded solutions is mixed at best.  … and at worst, the research shows these programs are a vast waste of time and taxpayer money. Since family stability and concern for education are the most important indicators of future education and life success for small children, they say, government would do better to increase families’ school choices and stability, increasing incentives for families to care about their child’s education and live in a manner most likely to promote their child’s wellbeing, in particular by getting and staying married.

The following documents offer further information about government-funded preschool.


HHS Releases Negative Head Start Evaluation Four Years Late
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released an evaluation of the federal preschool program, finding it has no benefit to children past first grade. Despite this report, Congress voted to send an extra $100 million to Head Start. By third grade, children who attend Head Start cannot be distinguished from their peers who did not. Head Start is expensive and ineffective and produces no long-term impact on cognitive ability. Although a Government Accountability Office report revealed fraud in the Head Start program and the evaluation was released four years after the study was conducted, Congress still funded the program.

Results-Based Financing for Preschool Catching On
A “results-based financing” or “pay for success” program for preschool was enacted in Salt Lake County in Park City, Utah. Private investors or philanthropists fund social programs to save taxpayer dollars. If the policy goals are met and the savings materialize, the investors receive their money back with interest. Goldman Sachs and philanthropist J.B. Pritzker put up $7 million for at-risk children to attend high-quality preschool. The program’s goal is to benefit the taxpayer while providing better early childhood education.

Commentary: State-Funded Preschool Unproven at Best
Government-funded preschool advocates ground their claim that such early childhood programs translate into long-term social, economic, and academic benefits on studies of programs that have never scaled up, were extremely expensive and intensive, and otherwise completely unlike the proposals they are meant to back, writes Joy Pullmann in the Detroit News. She examines 40 such studies and three constantly cited preschool programs to show why their results do not apply to most proposals to expand government preschool.

Government Preschool: Like Treating Cancer With A Band-Aid
In response to Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times op-ed and the Obama administration’s push for federally funded universal pre-K, Joy Pullmann highlights the “lack of evidence most children need preschool, the lack of evidence the federal government is well-suited to administer such a program, the lack of money this nation has for the foreseeable future, and the lack of logic he and most preschool advocates use when pushing their cracked ideas.” Discussing preschool and solutions to improve the system needs to happen in a realistic context. Spending more taxpayer money on programs that use misguided research is ineffective and incompetent.

Head Start Program: Fraudulent and Ineffective
Shortly after a Health and Human Services review found Head Start has no impact on student learning or behavior, the Government Accountability Office discovered providers in six states and DC actively enrolling ineligible children in the program, writes David Mulhausen in a policy report for The Heritage Foundation. This type of fraud wastes taxpayer dollars and compounds the fraud the program already perpetrates on children by doing nothing to improve their mental skills or emotional well-being. He notes participating in Head Start actually reduced math skills for three-year-olds.

Does Pre-k Work? It Depends How Picky You Are 
After reviewing programs, studies, and evidence for public spending on universal pre-K, Russ Whitehurst concludes large public investments on the expansion of pre-K will not produce the long-term effects advocates claim. He finds the research findings supporting universal pre-K are mixed and misleading. It is important to raise questions and be skeptical about putting taxpayer dollars towards these programs, he states. The results of major studies are based on inaccurate research designs. Whitehurst writes, “Not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial, and nearly all have serious limitations in external validity.”

Pre-K Decay: Preschool Advocates’ Claims of Success Are Based on Faulty Methodology
National Review‘s Jason Richwine criticizes the government promotion of pre-K in the United States. He notes limitations of studies supporting government-funded preschools. Because of self-selection bias, it is unclear whether early education programs use taxpayer dollars effectively. Studies showing those who attend preschool have higher test scores later on are limited by self-selection bias, he notes. Those who choose to sign up for preschool have different characteristics than those who do not sign up, which affects results. He stresses the importance of skepticism as academics and advocates push for increased funding.

New Evidence Raises Doubts on Obama’s Preschool for All
Essentially no positive claims researchers have made about government preschool programs are supported by the evidence, says developmental psychologist Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution. He reviews the first, gold-standard study of a modern preschool program, which is consistent with previous evidence showing essentially no benefit to children of government preschool. The study of Tennessee children found those who attended a state preschool program scored lower on cognitive ability than children who did not, had more behavior problems, and had stronger negative attitudes about school. Whitehurst “see[s] these findings as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs.”

Reviewing the Research on Universal Preschool and All-Day Kindergarten
Some political activists promoting universal preschool programs are attempting to convince legislators, business groups, and taxpayers that putting every toddler in a tax-subsidized preschool program would deliver long-term benefits to society in general. This Policy Note describes the child care environment for preschoolers in Washington State, examines the claims being made by universal preschool proponents, and reviews research on existing programs in other states showing the educational effect of universal preschool fades out over time. Studies conclude the highly regulated universal preschool programs for families in Georgia, Oklahoma, and New Jersey have provided no long-lasting educational benefit to children.

Head Start Impact Evaluation Report Finally Released
Since 1965, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on Head Start. Yet, over the decades, this Great Society relic has failed to improve academic outcomes for the children it was designed to help. The third-grade follow-up evaluation from 2008 – released in 2012 – is the latest in a growing body of evidence that should persuade policymakers to reconsider Head Start’s future.

Whitehurst Testimony on Early Childhood Education to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce
Russ Whitehurst delivered testimony on early childhood education to the Committee on Education and the Workforce of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 5, 2014. The testimony states the federal government spends a disproportionate amount on early childhood education, disproving the claims of underfunding. The returns from the effort are limited and not worth the amount spent. State programs are no more cost-effective. He concludes his testimony by advising Congress not to expend resources on programs proposed under Obama’s Administration’s Preschool for All initiative.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].