Universal pre-school is not a solution

David DorseyEducation

In a somewhat meandering August 21 opinion piece in the Garden City Telegram, Manhattan-Ogden school board vice-president Aaron Estabrook expresses his frustration at Governor Brownback for failing to pursue universal pre-school for Kansas 4 year-olds.

Mr. Estabrook, an Afghanistan war veteran whom I laud for his service to the country and commitment to assisting other veterans, makes a persuasive case that Kansas students would see higher achievement rates if pre-school were available to all.

Sounds compelling, doesn’t it? And it seems intuitive that if children started school earlier they would be more successful – or would they?

Unfortunately for Mr. Estabrook and all supporters of universal pre-school, reality doesn’t support that claim.

The author writes: “The achievement gap doesn’t begin at third grade or high school, but on the first day of kindergarten, and is rooted in inequitable access to preschool.” Later in the article he praises Oklahoma for having universal pre-school for the past 16 years and because of that “Oklahoma marches on and begins to see the success in their workforce.”

However, an analysis of Nation Assessment on Education Progress (NAEP) data debunks the assertion of Mr. Estabrook. The following table shows that the achievement gap between low-income and not-low-income students in both reading and math for fourth graders in the Sooner State is not only considerable, but is actually increasing. Conclusions from this 2009 Heritage Foundation study are consistent with this data that universal pre-school has not had a positive impact on student achievement.

OKNAEPScores

Further, Mr. Estabrook’s implication that Oklahoma students must be higher achievers than Kansans because of universal pre-school is patently incorrect.  As the following table exhibits, Oklahoma’s fourth graders are doing even worse in reading and math than those in Kansas.

NAEPScores

But even the persistent lack of success in Oklahoma notwithstanding, research indicates that universal pre-school isn’t the panacea it has been portrayed. This article in The Atlantic quotes the co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the left-leaning Brookings Institute, as calling universal pre-school “a very bad idea.”  And one need not look any farther than the half-century experiment known as Head Start to realize the failings of a wide scale government sponsored pre-school program.

Yet despite evidence to the contrary, there seems to be widespread support for universal pre-school, starting with President Obama’s call for it. Why? Simply put, it is politically popular. It sounds like a good thing.

The trap that those in the education establishment and the political realm fall into is that more government (aka, more money) is the answer to whatever the topical problem. When will they realize that more government is the problem?  

If Mr. Estabrook was serious about improving the lot of Kansas students, he would be fighting for more parental control of their children’s education school choice, instead of fighting to give the government one more year in controlling their lives. As shown here, here, and here, parental involvement in school choice consistently improves student success.

And that is something we should all be fighting for.

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