Commentary

President’s Preschool Emphasis Is Misdirected

“When it comes to our children’s future,” writes president Obama in his first budget, “we cannot waste dollars on methods, programs, and initiatives that are not effective and efficient.” He’s right, but his budget fails to heed his own dictum.

The president is proposing education policies that are neither the most effective nor the most efficient means of achieving his laudable goals. He plans to expand Head Start and double funding for Early Head Start — federal programs aimed at preschool children. Though the president appears convinced that such programs can save many times what is spent on them, the evidence for that view is weak.

Even economist James Heckman, whose work has influenced President Obama’s thinking on the subject, is far more guarded. In 2007, Heckman identified three small preschool programs from the 1960s and 1970s that studies suggest have more than paid for themselves in lower subsequent welfare and criminal justice costs incurred by their participants. But Heckman cautioned that “a much more careful analysis of the effects of scaling up the model programs… has to be undertaken before these estimates can be considered definitive.”

His caveat is well justified. The “Perry preschool” study which yielded the highest estimated return enrolled just 123 children. There is good reason to doubt that it can be replicated by the federal government nationwide. A large body of research on other Head Start programs finds that while they sometimes offer short term academic benefits, these generally disappear by the elementary school grades. The largest review of this literature, published by the Department of Health and Human Services, looked at more than 200 studies and concluded that there was no lasting academic advantage to participation in Head Start.

If spending on Head Start and other federal education programs had produced widespread, significant benefits since their inception in the mid 1960s, overall student achievement and graduation rates should have risen over time. The achievement gap between children of high-school dropouts and those of college graduates should have narrowed as well, because most federal education programs are targeted at disadvantaged students. None of these things occurred.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, the best available measure of academic trends, U.S. seventeen-year-olds score no better in math or reading today than they did nearly forty years ago. In science they perform slightly worse. The gap between children of dropouts and children of college graduates is unchanged in reading and science, and has decreased by only one percent in math. According to Heckman himself, the high school graduation rate peaked a few years after Head Start was passed and has declined by four or five points since then.

For these disappointing results, the federal government has spent roughly $1.85 trillion dollars on education programs since 1965. So while some small local preschool programs may have generated lasting, significant effects, the federal government cannot be counted on to reproduce those effects on a national scale.

If the president really wants effective, efficient programs, he should look at Florida’s scholarship donation tax credit. Under this program, businesses can contribute to non-profit scholarship organizations that subsidize private k-12 tuition for needy families. For each dollar they donate, the businesses owe one fewer dollar in taxes. Last December, Florida’s own government accountability office found that this education tax credit saves $1.49 for every dollar it reduces tax revenue. That is three times the largest return on investment for the preschool programs cited by Heckman —and it comes from a policy that is already serving 23,000 students statewide.

Giving at-risk children access to private schooling has been repeatedly shown to improve their educational attainment. Economist Derek Neal has found that Catholic schools raise the graduation rate of urban African Americans by 26 percentage points, and more than double their chances of graduating from college – even after controlling for differences in student background between the sectors. Half a dozen other scientific studies echo Neal’s findings. Researchers from the U.S. and abroad also point to higher test scores for students when they attend private rather than public schools, after controlling for student and family background, as I report in a forthcoming global literature review in the Journal of School Choice.

While it would not be constitutional for the president to pursue a national school choice program, he could greatly accelerate the growth and adoption of such programs around the country by throwing his support behind them. He would not be the first Democrat to do so. Florida’s scholarship tax credit was expanded last year with the support of one third of the state’s Democratic caucus.

Andrew J. Coulson directs the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and is author of the forthcoming study “Comparing Public, Private, and Market Schools.”