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Heretic View of Pre-K

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to fund a full day of free pre-K for every four-year old by increasing the tax on personal income over $500,000 from 3.86 to 4.41 percent ("Will New York City Lead the Way on Pre-K?" The Nation, Dec. 26, 2013). The rationale is that high quality programs produce returns of $17 for every $1 in government spending.

Putting aside the way pre-K in New York City will be funded, which is reminiscent of the Preschool for All Initiative that failed in California in 2006, I admit that the proposed program is appealing. After all, who could possibly be against helping disadvantaged children get a leg up on their advantaged classmates?  But there are several questions that warrant frank answers.

First, are the benefits of pre-K primarily academic or social?  The most widely cited study is the Perry Preschool Project that ran from 1962-67 in Ypsilanti, Mich.  It claimed a gain in IQ of 15 points, which is quite impressive, but the gain disappeared by the end of the third grade. On the other hand, there were gains to society, for example, in the form of fewer crimes committed by the study group relative to the control group. That's no small thing.  However, the distinction between academic and social is often lost in today's debate.

Second, are the social benefits scalable?  Data from Oklahoma and Georgia call that into question. Georgia expanded its pre-K program for high-risk children in 1995 to all four-year-olds.  It gives parents a $4,500 voucher for a qualified preschool.  The state has a participation rate well above the 47 percent national average.  Yet the first participants in Georgia's program show teen birth rates still far above the national average, even though they have declined in the past decade. Oklahoma hasn't done much better in this regard, despite its enrollment rate of 75 percent, the highest in the country.

Third, is high quality the key to better outcomes?  The Department of Health and Human Services issued a 346-page report about Head Start, which began in 1965.  It concluded: "There were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of the 3rd grade there were very few impacts found ... in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices."  I don't know if this bleak assessment was the result of the uneven quality of Head Start. But it does offer cause for pause.

Finally, is upward mobility associated with pre-K and its variants entirely worth it?  At least when it comes to impoverished African-Americans, the answer may be no ("Can Upward Mobility Cost You Your Health?" The New York Times, Jan. 5).  According to a study of 489 rural African-American young people in Georgia, those who buckled down academically, stayed out of trouble, made friends and developed a positive sense of self paid a price in their deteriorating physical health.  In other words, the so-called "return on investment" has a serious downside.

I'd fervently like to believe that pre-K programs can make a significant difference for all disadvantaged children. But the evidence so far does not support that blanket view. Perhaps New York City will prove to be an exception.  I certainly hope so.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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