“The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem,” insisted President Obama during his State of the Union Address. But the president seems to.

He outlined government “solutions” for virtually everything that ails us, starting with healthcare, the economy, even Hurricane Sandy—which apparently could have been avoided if we had more green jobs, a “market-based” approach to fixing climate change according to the president.

But none of those fixes “will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs.  And that has to start at the earliest possible age.” In other words, we need more government-run preschool to grow the middle class.

“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. … Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.  Every 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.” Let’s take a closer look.

“Study after study,” well, not exactly. More like three programs. The first is the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, conducted from 1962 through 1965. Back then project researchers asserted that taxpayers would get a $7.16 return for every dollar spent—except neither they nor toddlers got the promised bang for the buck. Aside from the weak scientific methods used (see here, p. 3; here, pp. 2-3; and here, pp. 18-21), the results have never been replicated. Moreover, the project focused on just 58 disadvantaged preschoolers with mental retardation, and experts caution that this is a poor model to universalize. In fact, David Weikart, past president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, told U.S. News & World Report, “For middle-class youngsters with a good economic basis, most programs are not able to show much in the way of difference.”

The Carolina Abecedarian Project, begun in 1972, involved 57 infants averaging about four months old (see here, pp. 3-4; and here, pp. 21-23). These children received intensive home interventions that lasted until they entered kindergarten. As with the Perry Preschool Project, results were never replicated, and experts noted that after nearly five year there was very little difference between participants and non-participants.

A federally funded longitudinal study of the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program began in the mid-1980s and at least had a larger study group—more than 1,000 low-income children. But those children participated with their parents in extensive workshops and tutoring—again far more than just preschool (see here, pp. 4-5). Like the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects the Chicago program analysis used suspect methodologies. That didn’t stop other research organizations from insisting that every dollar invested would yield returns ranging from $2.62 (here, pp. xiv, xxxvi, 96, 112, and 141) to $11. It also didn’t curb enthusiastic claims that preschool boosts high-school graduation rates, and slashes arrest rates.

But there must be some program that focused on preschool that could be applied universally to the middle class children the president says he’s concerned about, right? Well yes there is: the federal Head Start Program, managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Launched in 1965, this government program was meant as a six-week summer catch-up program for disadvantaged students about to enter kindergarten.

Once a $96.4 million targeted government program for about a half million students, Head Start is now a nearly $8 billion program with 964,000 enrollees. This means the program originally cost around $172 per Head Start recipient, but today it costs about $7,839—45 times more expensive. Surely there must a gargantuan return on that kind of “investment,” right? Wrong.

According to the two latest Head Start evaluations by HHS, impacts faded out as early as the end of first grade, and others dissipated by the end of third grade. In 2010, for example, HHS concluded:

Access to Head Start did not appear to have an overall impact on the schools that children attended in kindergarten and 1st grade or on their early elementary education experiences.  With only a few exceptions, teacher, classroom, and school characteristics did not differ significantly between children in the program group and those in the control group.  (here, p. 3-51 and 9-3)


Despite the early, positive, cognitive effects… This pattern of limited cognitive impacts in the school years may suggest that the magnitude of the initial cognitive impacts may not have been sufficiently potent for the early gains Head Start children made to be sustained as they developed   and move d into the elementary school years.  (here, p. 9-4)

The findings from last October were no better:

In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rdgrade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social- emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children. (here, p. xvii)

In terms of cognitive impacts, which presumably are critical to job skills later on, HHS found:

The Head Start Impact Study  found  impacts  for the sample as a whole at the end of one year of  Head Start on a broad range of early language and literacy outcomes for children in both the 3- and 4-year -old cohorts, with impacts on math skills for children in the 3-year -old cohort. However, these early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rdgrade for children in each age cohort. The data indicated that the initial Head Start benefits are quickly “made up” by children in the non-Head Start group. (here, p. 92)


There is clear evidence that Head Start had an impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. These effects, albeit modest in magnitude, were found for both age cohorts during their first year of admission to the Head Start program. However, these early effects were no longer evident in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rd grade for children in each age cohort:  a favorable impact for the 4- year -old cohort (ECLS-K Reading) and an unfavorable impact for the 3- year -old cohort (grade promotion). The scores of the Head Start and control group children remain ed lower than the norm for the population. (here, p. 147)


At the end of 3 rd   grade, there was suggestive evidence of an unfavorable impact—the parents of the Head Start group children reported a significantly lower child grade promotion rate than the parents of the non – Head Start group children. (here, p. xxii)

So let’s review: experts caution against universalizing small-scale preschool programs designed for highly targeted toddler and infant populations, those programs encompassed far more expansive family services than typical preschool programs, and the only long-term, large-scale government-run early education program has turned out to be an utter failure.

So it’s worth asking, how is the president’s preschool plan supposed to grow the middle class when any effects fade out by grade three? By spending more of the middle class’ and other’s tax dollars, apparently.

Head Start proponents insist we need to be spending around $10,000 per recipient, not the nearly $7,800 we're spending now. What we really need to be doing is letting parents choose the preschool options they think are best. How? Let parents who can afford to do so pay for whatever preschool they wish and then take a dollar-for-dollar credit off their taxes. For parents who cannot afford to do so, establish Early Education Savings Accounts (EESAs), based on Arizona’s successful K-12 ESA model. Instead of funneling more money into Head Start, deposit what would have been spent on a child into parents’ EESAs, annually adjusted according to family income and size.

We know what doesn’t work after nearly 50 years: handing other people’s children and money over to the Nanny State.