Why you should care
Because a little bit of research could possibly save $101 billion. Go nerds!
Those of you who, shall we say, didn’t ace AP Math might feel a little touchy about those infamously depressing international math-score rankings. The U.S. is squarely middle-of-the-pack, better than Kazakhstan but way behind the leader, Singapore, according to the Pew Research Center. Which could explain why the Obama administration is proposing spending $120 billion to create universal preschool programs.
But it turns out the program might be a lot cheaper than originally thought. According to Grover Whitehurst, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, new research indicates that even without the program,
69% of 4-year-olds were already attending preschool in 2010-2011.
That’s at least 14 percentage points higher than previously thought, and takes the total attendance close to what might be expected in a universally available but voluntary-enrollment program. “There’s only a small gap to be filled,” says Whitehurst.
Whitehurst admits there are lots of ways to tweak the assumptions to produce a higher cost estimate, including more robust programs or longer hours at school. He makes a detailed case as to why earlier attendance estimates were too low, but he agrees with one central finding: that kids from wealthier families attend more often than kids from poorer families.
Still, in the three states that currently offer free pre-K schooling to all, attendance rates range from 58 percent (Georgia) to 79 percent (Florida). Setting a target rate of 80 percent attendance at half-day programs, and making assumptions about how much families might have to pay to send their kids, Whitehurst figures a universally available pre-K program would cost only $19 billion over 10 years. Could it be true that a little bit of research might actually save $101 billion? Maybe.
And that’s assuming the $19 billion is even worth spending. A Vanderbilt University study released in September of Tennessee’s voluntary all-day preschool program had some surprising results. As you’d expect, kids at the end of the program scored better on basic reading-related skills, and their kindergarten teachers rated them as better prepared and better behaved than kids who hadn’t attended preschool. Kids who spoke English as a second language gained even more from the experience. But here’s the surprise: By the end of first grade, the kids who attended preschool were rated poorer prepared and as having poorer work skills. By the end of second grade? The higher achievers were kids who hadn’t attended pre-K. “It’s not a matter of not wanting to do something to help poor children,” says Dale Farren, a professor at Vanderbilt University who helped write the study. Critics have argued that the study merely highlights problems with the Tennessee program, which had less funding than programs that seemed to show more success.
Hmm. Maybe a bit more study is in order.