Commentary

Preschool in the Nanny State

By Darcy Ann Olsen
This article appeared in the Weekly Standard on August 9, 1999.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: The push for universal preschool is on. Already the state of Georgia offers free preschool to every 4-year-old, and New York is phasing in a statewide system. Legislators in California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are itching to follow suit. If Al Gore is elected president in 2000, this state-by-state expansion could be preempted by a federal mandate. As the vice president recently told a Denver audience, “If you elect me president, I will make high-quality preschool available to every child.”

Naturally, public officials hedge when asked whether preschool should be mandatory. But supporters call it a “necessity” for every child, a clear indication that calls for compulsory attendance loom in the shadows. Vermont legislator Bill Suchmann, for example, who introduced a bill to study the cost of compulsory preschool, denies that he advocates compulsory attendance — but says only compulsion can guarantee “equal educational opportunity.”

The theory is that putting kids on the “right track” will get them to the “right destination.” Gore explains, “The right kind of start — through quality preschool — can lead to higher IQs, higher reading and achievement levels, higher graduation rates, and greater success in the workplace.” Yet, after hundreds of experimental preschool intervention programs over more than thirty years, there is no evidence that preschool is the cure-all Gore describes.

Supporters of universal preschool, like the church leaders who dismissed the Copernican theory of the solar system, prefer their convictions to the evidence. They invariably point to the Perry Preschool Project to show that preschool confers lasting benefits on kids. That 1960s project tracked 123 children deemed “at-risk” through age 27. Half of them attended preschool as 3- and 4-year-olds, the other half didn’t. According to the research team, “Program participation had positive effects on adult crime, earnings, wealth, welfare dependence, and commitment to marriage.” The Perry research team seized on these results to produce the oft-cited “fact” that preschool provides “taxpayers a return on investment of $ 7.16 on the dollar.”

It wasn’t long before independent peer reviewers uncovered sizable sampling and methodological flaws in the Perry study. For example, preschool participants, but not the control group, had to have a parent at home during the day, which might have inflated the Perry findings. More important, in three decades the Perry results have never been replicated. Undeterred, both the California Department of Education and the New York State Board of Regents recently relied on the spurious cost-benefit analysis of the Perry Preschool Project to garner support for their universal preschool legislation.

Preschool proponents also shrug off inconvenient findings from Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children. Like universal preschool, Head Start is largely public-school-based, serves 3- and 4-year-olds, and espouses the mission of “school readiness.” As the nation’s largest and oldest preschool program, Head Start is filled with lessons for educators.

The most comprehensive synthesis of Head Start impact studies to date was published in 1985 by the Department of Health and Human Services. It showed that by the time children enter the second grade, any cognitive, social, and emotional gains by Head Start children have vanished. By second grade, that is, the achievement test scores, IQs, achievement-motivation scores, self-esteem, and social behavior scores of Head Start students are indistinguishable from those of their demographically comparable peers. The net gain to children and taxpayers is zero.

The first line of defense for Head Start proponents is to complain that the program has had too little money and too little time. But it has spent $ 35 billion over 34 years, which ought to be enough money and time to create a successful program if that were possible.

The second line of defense is to blame public schools. Head Start defenders claim that the benefits of preschool would be sustained if public schools shaped up. But there is no evidence to support this theory. And even if there were, there is little reason to think that the public schools will rise to the task.

Take Goals 2000, the plan hatched by President Bush and the nation’s governors in 1990. One goal was for American schools to rank first internationally in math and science. The most recent findings of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study place U.S. twelfth graders 19th out of 21 countries in math and 16th out of 21 countries in science. Another goal was safe classrooms. A joint report of the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics published in 1998 shows that more than half the nation’s public schools experienced serious crimes in the past few years. Maybe the public schools, too, just “need more time.”

The most common line of defense is simply to deny the facts, although a few educators have been willing to be honest. Consider the views of child-development scholar Edward Zigler, a founder of Head Start and director of Yale University’s Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. As far back as 1987, when educators were debating the merits of universal preschool, he warned, “This is not the first time universal preschool education has been proposed… . [In the past], as now, the arguments in favor of preschool education were that it would reduce school failure, lower dropout rates, increase test scores, and produce a generation of more competent high school graduates… . Preschool education will achieve none of these results.”

What Zigler recognized is that a child’s academic performance and personal growth turn on a lot more than preschool. Factors such as genetics, family, neighborhood, and life experiences from birth onward easily outweigh the influence of preschool. Preschools may teach children how to count, follow directions, and get along; Zigler himself favors universal preschool as a means to achieve school readiness. But preschool alone confers no lasting advantage. To put all children on an equal footing would require genetic engineering, surrogate parents, and for many kids, homes away from home.

In any case, the desirability of universal preschool should not hinge only on whether preschool works. Even more basic is the moral question of whether the government should entrench itself still further in the schooling of children. On this question, Al Gore and his allies are swimming against a powerful tide — witness the grass-roots movement sweeping through the states, offering charter schools, home-schooling, multi-million-dollar private scholarship funds, vouchers, and tax credits. Parents are working to loosen the government’s grip on K-12 education, even as the vice president is seeking to extend that hold to preschoolers. The most effective education reforms of the 1990s have featured decentralization, greater parental involvement, and private alternatives — while universal preschool is a throwback to the era of “government knows best.”

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.