Research & Commentary: Preschool Expansion and Development Grants

Published November 3, 2014

In 2014, Congress appropriated $250 million for a program offering preschool grants for states that apply for them. States with small state-funded preschool programs may apply for development grants, and states with larger state-funded preschool programs and/or Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge grants may apply for expansion grants. President Barack Obama has proposed doubling funding for preschool grants for fiscal year 2015.

Development grants range from $5 million to $20 million a year for four years, and expansion grants range between $10 million and $35 million a year, also for four years. Thirty-five states have applied for the grants.

Supporters of government preschool say a child’s early years are the most crucial for development and public investment in preschool would have clear economic and social benefits.

Opponents note the evidence supporting public preschool is weak at best, often showing high costs for few benefits that dissipate in later grades. For example, a 2013 Department of Health and Human Services evaluation of the federal preschool program, Head Start, found it had no benefit for children past the first grade, despite costing more than $8 billion a year, about $68.40 a year for the average U.S. household. In testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Brookings Institution scholar Russ Whitehurst said, “I don’t think the problems we have with early childhood programs in this country are about underfunding.”

States that receive a federal preschool grant would be required to administer preschool programs that run all day and all week, even though researchers have found as little as 15 hours a week away from home can lead to suppressed emotional development in very young children, inhibiting their ability to learn. Children experience far more cognitive growth in the elementary years than in the preschool years, further undermining the argument small children would benefit from time away from their family spent in institutionalized care.

Research strongly indicates family stability and support, not institutional programs, are the most important factors in a young child’s education and success. Children and taxpayers alike will be better off if states avoid applying for preschool development and expansion grants and instead focus on encouraging family stability and support for children by increasing options for school choice and giving parents incentives to get and remain married.

The following documents provide additional information about early childhood education.

Research & Commentary: President Obama’s Universal Pre-K Proposal 
Heartland Institute Research Fellow Joy Pullmann and Director of Government Relations John Nothdurft examine President Barack Obama’s proposal to expand federally funded pre-K programs by raising the federal cigarette tax. Pullmann and Nothdurft note research on government-funded preschool programs has failed to verify their long-term benefits. They also note cigarette taxes frequently generate far less revenue than their supporters project, and those taxes fall disproportionately on poor and middle-income families. 

What the Research Really Says about Government Preschool
Writing in School Choice Weekly, Heartland Institute Research Fellow Joy Pullmann reports 15 states applied for federal preschool grants around the same time research from the Cato Institute found evidence in support of government preschools to be severely lacking. Pullmann opines government-funded preschool is, at best, “an early remediation possibility for children in mind-starved home environments, and it may be able to help some of these children avoid jail and graduate from high school.” 

Research & Commentary: Latest Research on Government Preschool Programs
In an April 2014 Research & Commentary, Heartland Institute Research Fellow Joy Pullmann examines the latest research on government preschool programs, particularly the federally funded Head Start program. She finds the research results mixed at best; at worst, research shows government-funded preschool programs are a vast waste of time and taxpayer money. Pullmann recommends legislators instead increase incentives for families to care about their children’s education by increasing school choice. 

Evaluation of the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program: Kindergarten and First Grade FollowUp Results from the Randomized Control Design
An August 2013 Vanderbilt study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK), a full- day pre-K program for four-year-olds from low-income families, found its participants were statistically no different than non-preschool children on social skills and scored lower than their peers on cognitive skills tests. 

The Evidence on Universal Preschool
David Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University, performed a cost-benefit analysis of government preschool programs and found little evidence in support of such programs. He examines the federal Head Start program, Tennessee’s statewide preschool program, and several other high-profile local programs. He finds most other evaluations of preschool programs to be poorly designed. In addition, although “the most rigorous research designs show modest but statistically significant improvements during the preschool years, these gains fade as children move into the kindergarten and first grades.” 

HHS Releases Negative Head Start Evaluation Four Years Late
Writing in School Reform News, Heritage Foundation Education Fellow Lindsey Burke reports after a four-year delay, the Department of Health and Human Services released its evaluation of the federal preschool program, Head Start. The evaluation found Head Start has no benefit for children past the first grade, despite costing $180 billion since the program’s inception in 1965. 

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. He says 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 the programs proposed under the Obama administration’s Preschool for All initiative. 

Reviewing the Research on Universal Preschool and All-Day Kindergarten
This November 2007 essay from the Washington Policy Center examines government preschool programs and finds they can cause more harm than good. For example, a child enrolled for 15 to 30 hours per week in institutionalized care can feel emotionally repressed, increasing the likelihood of anti-social behavior and inhibiting the child’s ability to learn.


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 website of School Reform News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at  

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