Is Preschool for All a Good Idea?

Chester Finn of the Fordham Foundation has a good article in the latest Education Next on the movement for “preschool for all.” Finn is generally supportive of government programs for low-income and at risk children, but notes important differences between targeted programs, and universal, state-run Pre-K systems:

But the big issue with pre-K education is whether the gains and gap reductions last. Evidence is limited because the longitudinal studies needed to answer such questions are costly, complex, and obviously time-consuming. But the available evidence is profoundly discouraging. Most of the gains that can be found upon entry into school ebb over time, and the differences attributable to various kinds of programs tend to wash out, too. In fact, effects that may appear significant at the conclusion of the program itself frequently fade to the vanishing point by the time youngsters have progressed as far as 3rd grade. That fadeaway doubtless has more to do with what happens to students in the K—12 system—and the continuing malignant influences in the outside lives of many youngsters—than with preschool programs themselves. But it also suggests that universalizing the preschool experience is not the way to achieve lasting gap reduction. Indeed, as Fuller and others have noted, if the policy goal is to narrow gaps between haves and have-nots, why would the same programmatic intervention be administered to everybody? …

What’s more troubling is this calculation: since 85 percent of four-year-olds already participate in some sort of pre-K program, as much as $30 billion of that $36 billion figure would replace money that is presently being spent—by federal or state programs, private charity, and out of pocket by parents—while as little as $6 billion would go to pre-K services for children who currently have none. And that’s if they participate. Since no pre-K program will be compulsory, at least some of the families that don’t sign on today will not do so tomorrow, either because they’re too disorganized or because they truly don’t want it for their daughters and sons.
Could this large additional public expenditure be worth it?

Finn’s conclusion notes, among other things the importance of transforming Head Start into an effective program for low-income children – ensuring the billions taxpayers currently spend on preschool actually improves educational achievement.