Calif. Universal Preschool Proposition Has Big Cost, National Implications

On June 6, Californians will go to the polls to consider a new ballot initiative — Universal Preschool for All — that could have implications for taxpayers, families, and 4-year-olds across the nation. Backers claim that universal preschool will improve public education in America. Much research suggests otherwise.

Proposition 82 would provide state funding for all 4-year-olds in California to attend preschool. The Golden State already spends more than $3 billion per year to send low-income children to preschool. The new program, scheduled to cost more than $2 billion annually, would spread these subsidies to middle- and upper-income families.

The California initiative is representative of a national trend. States across the country are looking to early education programs to improve student performance. According to the Education Commission of the States, 40 states and Washington, D.C., fund pre-K programs. Georgia and Oklahoma offer universal pre-K to all 4-year-olds regardless of family need. The advocacy group "Pre-K Now" reports that 24 governors have proposed expanding their states’ preschool programs. For instance, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is supporting a plan to subsidize universal voluntary preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state.

Backers of universal preschool assert that early education is a sure-fire way to boost student achievement. Their theory is that investments in early education ensure that students enter grade school ready to learn, leading to lasting improvement in student performance.

But the case for universal preschool does not hold up to serious scrutiny. Researchers Darcy Olsen and Lisa Snell surveyed the research on early education polices in a new report for the Reason Foundation titled Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten: Essential Information for Parents, Taxpayers, and Policymakers. What they found should make universal preschool advocates think twice.

"We find strong evidence that widespread adoption of preschool and full-day kindergarten is unlikely to improve student achievement," Olsen and Snell write. "For nearly 50 years, local, state, and federal governments and diverse private sources have spent billions of dollars funding early education programs. Many early interventions have had meaningful short-term effects on grade-level retention and special education placement. However, the effects of early interventions routinely disappear after children leave the programs."

Olsen and Snell draw a few important lessons from the research. This first concerns what’s called "fade out." While early education programs may benefit some student groups (such as disadvantaged children) in the short run, these benefits disappear over time. For example, a February 2006 study by UC Santa Barbara researchers shows that the moderate gains made by children who attended preschool disappear by third grade. A study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics comparing the benefits of half-day and full-day kindergarten also found that the benefits faded out by third grade.

Second, Olsen and Snell’s report questions whether universal programs are necessary for children from middle- and upper-income families. "The studies conducted on mainstream children generally do not show benefits from early education programs," they explain, pointing to a 2005 RAND Corporation analysis which found that "children participating in preschool not targeted to disadvantaged children were no better off in terms of high school or college completion, earnings, or criminal justice involvement than those not going to any preschool." While slim research evidence points to benefits for disadvantaged children, giving subsidies to middle- and upper-class children is just not justified by research.

A third lesson is that early education can actually be harmful to some children’s social development. A 2005 study of 14,000 kindergarteners — conducted by researchers from Stanford University and the University of California — found that long hours spent in preschool negatively impacted the social skills of white, middle-class children. "The report’s a bit sobering for governors and mayors — including those in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, and Oklahoma — who are getting behind universal preschool," explained UC Berkley sociologist Bruce Fuller, a co-author of the report.

Of course, the mixed research evidence is only one factor to consider before jumping on the universal preschool bandwagon. Voters and families should consider other important questions. Should families be encouraged to deliver their children into government care at such an early age? Is the next step making preschool mandatory, as some politicians have suggested? What are the costs-to families, stay-at-home moms, and child-care providers-of replacing the current child-care system with a government-subsidized program?

Campaign commercials make it sound like a vote for universal preschool is a vote to improve children’s futures. But the truth is more complex. California voters-and families around the country-should look at the research evidence on universal preschool and make up their own minds.

For more information on universal preschool research, see:

"Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten: Essential Information for Parents, Taxpayers and Policymakers," By Darcy Olsen, Goldwater Institute, and Lisa Snell, Reason Foundation, May 2006.

"No Magic Bullet: Top Ten Myths about Government-Run Universal Preschool," by Lance Izumi and Xiaochin Claie Yan, Pacific Research Institute, May 2006.