Obama's universal preschool proposal: Game-changer or federal overreach?

President Obama said in his State of the Union address that he will push for universal preschool. Advocates say the plan could be transformational, but critics say it's too ambitious. 

By , Correspondent

A look at the impact preschool can have for youngsters as they move through the nation's education system.

As part of a broader effort to strengthen the middle class, President Obama proposed making universal preschool education available to all children in America in his State of the Union address Tuesday, a policy he’ll underscore when he visits an early childhood learning center outside Atlanta Thursday.

In doing so, he has thrown his weight behind an idea that advocates say is perhaps the most cost effective way of heading off later problems among at-risk kids – from dropout rates to teen pregnancy. Libby Doggett, director of the Home Visiting Campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts, called Mr. Obama's words a "watershed moment for our youngest children.”

But the seminal study on the beneficial effects of pre-K education is 40 years old, and critics say Obama's proposal is catering to education advocates, solving a problem that many American families don't rate highly.

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Many questions remain about Obama's plan, including what such a program would cost. But Obama specifically referenced Georgia and Oklahoma, two states which make preschool available to every child, as examples of what he wants to accomplish.  

“Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” Obama said. "In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”

The liberal think tank, Center for American Progress, released its own report days before the president’s speech. CAP’s plan has the federal government partnering with states to subsidize preschool based on income, matching state spending dollar-for-dollar up to $10,000 per child for full-day preschool. CAP estimates its plan would cost the federal government $98.4 billion over 10 years, assuming most of the costs would be paid for by states.

According to calculations by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), high-quality preschool education costs an average of $8,000 per child per year. This would make universal preschool for all 4-year-olds about $33 billion per year, and close to $70 billion for all 3- and 4-year-olds – not taking into account existing spending on pre-K.

Currently, about 80 percent of 4-year-olds attend preschools in the US, and about half of those attend public programs like state pre-K, federal Head Start, or special education, and the other half attend private programs, according to a 2008 State of Preschool report by NIEER. In Oklahoma, where parents have the option to send their 4-year-olds to the state-funded public pre-K, about 72 percent of families participate.

Still, the president’s proposal satisfies the demands of advocates rather than parents, says Grover Whitehurst, a director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“I haven’t seen a groundswell of public demand for federal involvement at this level,” says Mr. Whitehurst, who is also a former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the US Department of Education. “This comes largely from the policy world. People have been working on this agenda for over a decade and finally got the ears of the administration.”

Advocates, including Obama, say universal preschool is a good investment.

“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,” Obama said in his State of the Union speech.

He was referring to findings from an iconic 1960s preschool intervention program, the Perry Preschool Project, which followed children from at-risk homes from high-quality preschool programs into adulthood. This and other similar studies have found a host of benefits linked to high-quality preschool attendance.One by CAP suggests that, without high-quality early childhood intervention, an at-risk child is 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent, 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education, 60 percent more likely never to attend college, and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

These benefits provide a return on investment of anywhere between $4 and $17 for every $1 spent, says W. Steven Barnett, director of NIEER at Rutgers University.

Adds Ms. Doggett of Pew, “I don’t think there’s a better educational investment you can make that will return greater benefit than a quality pre-K program.”

But critics, including Whitehurst, say the evidence for universal preschool is scant. Pilot programs and related statistics focus on benefits to the most disadvantaged children attending intensive, high-quality preschool programs.

“My first reaction [to Obama’s proposal] was, ‘Gosh, this speech is really misleading in terms of evidence,’” says Whitehurst, who recently wrote a piece for Brookings critical of universal preschool. “The point of my piece is that generalizing from a 40-year-old multiyear program that cost $100,000 a kid to a typical state-funded program for 4-year-olds is a great big leap of faith,” he says, referring to the findings from the Perry Preschool Program cited by Obama.

“We currently don’t have compelling evidence that those programs, made universal, are going to generate positive returns,” he adds.

Whitehurst says such programs have the greatest impact among the most disadvantaged populations. “The more universal we go, the more we take money and spread it around, the more thin the resources are for any particular child in need, and the less the impact,” he says.

“Programs that are supposed to impact school readiness have the greatest effect for kids who are otherwise not ready – low-income or disadvantaged families,” he adds. “That’s where the investment needs to be, where the investment has the greatest promise of paying off.”

Mr. Barnett of NIEER says the government has already tried – and failed – with targeted programs.

“We’ve been doing Head Start for 50 years. How well is that working out?” he says. “That’s 50 years of proof that this is not the model we want.”

Yet Whitehurst says he’s not convinced that universal preschool is a good investment.

“The evidence is very weak that it will achieve anything like the outcomes anticipated,” he says. “I would rather see the administration increase resources for targeted programs and make them more coherent.”

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