“Universal” preschool’s real-world record

In the debate over whether or not Vermont should expand the public school system to include taxpayer funded preschool for all 3 & 4 year olds regardless of special or financial need, the editorial page of the Rutland Herald rightly reminds us all that the goal is, and should be, to do what’s best for Vermont’s children. So, let’s ask some hard questions about the real-world impact of “universal” programs (as opposed to programs limited to “at-risk” kids) on children where universal preschools have been in place.

Vermonters have the benefit of looking before we leap at several fully-implemented, long-standing universal programs that already exist in Georgia, Oklahoma and Quebec, Canada. What results have these programs garnered for mainstream children, and are these results something we want for Vermont kids? 

Evidence from performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which is considered the nation’s report card, shows no evidence of academic gain from U-Pre-K. Georgia has had universal preschool open to all children since 1995 and Oklahoma since 1998. But, to quote a February 2006 report from the Reason Foundation, “In a recent analysis of the top 10 best and worst state performers, based on the percentage point change in fourth grade reading tests between 1992 and 2005 on the NAEP, both Georgia and Oklahoma were in the bottom 10 performers. In fact, Oklahoma was the worst performer of all states in terms of gains in fourth-grade reading between 1992 and 2005, actually losing 4 percentage points….”

Similarly, in Quebec an economics professor at Universite du Quebec named Pierre Lefebvre completed a study comparing 4- and 5-year-olds in Quebec with kids elsewhere in Canada, who did not have access to U-Pre-K, and found that Quebec kids have no better scores on the Peabody vocabulary test, the most widely used indicator of school readiness.

Apart from a lack of academic benefit, a study of the Quebec program done by the C.D. Howe Institute showed a detrimental impact on children emotionally. Their results indicated that the more time kids spent away from their parents in universal preschool, the more “aggressive,” “disobedient” and “assertive” they tended to become. Even more shocking was the emotional impact on mothers of kids in the universal program. They tended to be more depressed, hostile, ineffectual parents and suffered “deteriorating spousal relationships.” Not surprisingly, this compounded problems for the children.

Last year, the Vermont State Board of Education created a special committee to study all the evidence regarding the effectiveness of universal preschool. After months of in depth research the Committee on Early Education concluded that there is no evidence of mainstream kids getting any lasting benefit from this kind of program. Their recommendation was that it would be in the best interests of all Vermont kids to not pursue “universal” preschool, but rather to put scarce resources toward getting “at-risk” kids the help they need. To that end, Vermont already has programs such as Head Start, Essential Early Education, Success by Six, in place to help these kids. We don’t need another program or another bureaucracy.

This is the real world track record of taxpayer funded, universal preschool. On what do supporters of U-Pre-K hang their claims of lower crime, higher graduation rates, long term savings, etc?

The studies and briefs used by U-Pre-K advocates in Vermont almost invariably lead back to the High Scope/ Perry Preschool project. This was a clinical study of 3 & 4 year olds in the mid 1960’s – just 123 inner-city African American kids deemed to be at risk for “retarded intellectual functioning and eventual school failure.” All of the children were of low socioeconomic status and had IQs in the range of 70 to 85.73. The program involved either one or two years of intensive half-day preschool for seven months each year, periodic home visits, and parent counseling. This did achieve some notable successes, but keep in mind “success” for this highly at-risk target group meant that by age 19 only 33% of the preschoolers had dropped out of high school, only 31% had been arrested, and the 25 girls had only experienced 17 pregnancies.

What can High Scope teach us about offering fifteen thousand, rural, mostly white,  mainstream kids a mere ten hours of taxpayer subsidized daycare a week? I’d argue nothing. Except, perhaps, to bolster the argument that programs specifically targeted to kids who need help the most are, in fact, the way to go.

The Vermont Legislature is currently conducting summer/fall study looking into the cost/benefits of U-Pre-K in Vermont. Its conclusions are set to be released on January 7, 2007.

So, the question Rutland voters need to ask is, why the need to rush a program into place between August 22 and September 5? If you really care about kids, wouldn’t you at least be interested in finding out if these programs work – or harm – kids before starting a program? As a parent, that would be my inclination. For elected officials, I would think starting an unproven program with an unknown price tag before a cost/benefit analysis is complete would be nothing short of negligent.

But, that’s only if you’re really concerned with the best educational and emotional interests of the children. If you’re primarily concerned with the financial interests of the adults who stand to run the new programs, you might see things a bit differently.

Rob Roper is the State Director for FreedomWorks-Vermont and the editor of the Vermont Education Report.


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