In his State of the Union speech, President Obama chided Congress, “Our government shouldn’t make promises we cannot keep,” but then he did what politicians regularly do and raised false expectations. He claimed that “[e]very dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” This is wishful thinking. The vast majority of research shows that preschool has no long term benefits. Some studies even show adverse behavioral impacts for children who participate.
Over the past three decades, researchers have watched as initial learning gains made by low income children in preschool programs fade out over time and disappear altogether usually by the fifth grade if not earlier. The most recent government funded research study, for example, on the federal Head Start program shows early academic and cognitive gains vanishing by third grade. In other words, children who participated in the program ended up no different than children who stayed at home. As for children from middle and upper income families, research shows neither long term nor short term positive impacts from participating in preschool.
So where do politicians and special interests come up with the claim that government spending on preschool saves money? They disregard the majority of research and rely instead on a few small-scale studies of yet-to-be-replicated programs showing some impact. They generalize the findings from severely at-risk students to more heterogeneous populations. They fail to include research findings documenting the negative impact of preschool participation and omit the costs of government-funded preschool programs, such as the economic impact of higher taxes, fees, or lottery schemes. When researchers Christopher F. Cardiff and Edward Stringham adjusted the flawed assumptions in a proposed universal preschool in California, they calculated a loss of 25 to 30 cents per dollar for the state’s taxpayers.
Despite the overwhelming evidence against the efficacy of preschool programs, taxpayers have spent $180 billion on Head Start over nearly 50 years. Even though studies of state funded preschool programs have yielded similar disappointing results, 39 states, including Colorado, spend over $5 billion on such programs annually, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Colorado’s subsidized preschool program costs taxpayers $39 million a year. It is unfair to ask taxpayers to pay more or carry more public debt for programs that have no societal benefit.
This isn’t to say that preschool isn’t the right choice for some families or that individual children do not benefit from the experience. No one is suggesting the elimination of tax incentives or public or private programs that help single moms afford needed daycare. That said, politicians should not make false promises about the benefits of preschool as a pretext for increasing government spending. The research shows such promises cannot be kept.