Having failed to pass elections legislation, Democrats are now scrambling to put together a scaled-back version of their Build Back Better legislation, with the hope that they might finally win the support of Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.).  A key component of the legislation is likely to be universal pre-K—a program that Sen. Manchin has said he’s “all in” on.  A new study of state-run pre-K, however, found that it has long-term negative effects on childrens’ achievement and behavior.

The study is the most rigorous look at state-run pre-K to date.  The authors followed through sixth grade over 2,900 children from low-income families who applied to Tennessee’s pre-K program, and compared the students who were randomly admitted to the program with students who were not (the “control children”).  It is one of the few randomized studies of pre-K, and it has a longer follow-up period than other studies.  Based on parent interviews of a portion of the control children, the authors found that most of them (63%) received home-based, familial care, instead of attending pre-K.

In 2016, the authors initially reported “significant positive immediate effects” of pre-K, based on achievement measures conducted at the end of the pre-K program.  By the end of kindergarten, however, most of those positive effects were no longer statistically significant, and by the end of third grade, certain measures had turned slightly negative.  

The new study reports on the next phase of the study, which measured the effects of pre-K through sixth grade.  As to achievement outcomes, the authors found that the “control children continued to outperform” the pre-K children “in reading, mathematics, and science with statistically significant differences larger than those observed in third grade,” and that the control children were significantly less likely to require special education services.  As to behavioral outcomes, the authors found that the control children had higher attendance rates and fewer disciplinary infractions than pre-K children, with the differences again being statistically significant.

The authors considered, and rejected, the possibility that these negative effects might be attributable to the quality of Tennessee’s pre-K program, explaining that “[a]mong state-funded pre-K programs, the TN program is above average and arguably in the top tier on characteristics many believe mark high quality.”  They additionally note that their results are consistent with other studies of pre-K programs and Head Start, which tend to show initial positive effects that fade over time, and with studies indicating “long-term negative outcomes on behavior for children in group care.”

The authors end with a stark warning:

The whole package of outcomes we have found is disconcerting.  The intent of everyone who has advocated for expansion of state pre-K programs is well meaning and reflects a commitment to improving the life outcomes for children from impoverished circumstances.  If the programs we have created do not produce the desired effects, the findings themselves should not be dismissed simply because they were unanticipated and unwelcome.  Rather, they should stimulate creative research into both policies and practices with potential to have the desired effects. The goal remains the same.  If we are serious about the goal, the means to attain it may have to change.

Progressive policymakers would be wise to “follow the science” before rushing to implement a nationwide, universal pre-K program that risks harming underserved children.