That's the provocative suggestion of this recent Slate article. Unfortunately, it's wrong.
Deck aside, the article, by Melinda Wenner Moyer, is largely unobjectionable. Its core argument is not actually that preschool is a bad investment, but that affluent parent freak-outs about getting Junior into the "right" preschool (which outlets like the New York Times and Slate so love to cover) are totally pointless. I can get down with that.
But the reality, of course, is that most parents aren't Coastal elites trying to get into the 92nd Street Y preschool or anguishing over Reggio Emilia vs. Montessori. In fact, 48% of children under age five live in low-income families--whose kids are both less likely than middle-class or affluent peers to go to pre-k and reap great benefit from it.
Moreover, the author is simply wrong that, "Research suggests that preschool only benefits children from these disadvantaged families." The strongest existing research support for pre-k does come from studies of early interventions designed to help disadvantaged youngsters--such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool and Chicago Parent Child Centers projects. Because many publicly funded preschool programs limit services to low-income kids, research on these programs also tends to find results only for more disadvantaged youngsters As a result, the evidence base for pre-k's value to poor and low-income kids is much stronger than for middle class or affluent children. That said, a rigorous evaluation of the impact of Universal Pre-k in Oklahoma clearly found that children from all socio-economic groups benefitted from participating in the program--but low-income and poor kids benefited more than their middle class peers.
If you're reading this, and you happen to be an affluent parent agonizing over choosing "the right" preschool--relax. Be grateful you have a choice. Be grateful your child is happy and safe. But if you're concerned about improving achievement and equity for the millions of low-income kids who are our nation's future--you should definitely worry about pre-k. Worry about the fact that one third to one half of the achievement gap exists before children start first grade. Worry that 40% of poor kids never attend pre-k at all--despite the evidence of its benefits to them. Worry that too many preschool programs aren't doing a good enough job of preparing children for school. Worry about children who are in unsafe childcare arrangements that actually harm their development. Worry about what's wrong with our political and education culture that we've dramatically increased K-12 spending over the past decade while largely failing to heed the most powerful body of research in education, which shows that quality early childhood works. Then do something about it.