Universal pre-school is the coming fad. High-cost, high-quality pre-schools help poor children do better in school and in life. But when it comes to subsidized pre-schools for all children, the record of success is murkier, reports the Boston Globe.
For example, a recent study of Oklahoma’s statewide program to provide preschool for 4-year-olds found large benefits for children poor enough to qualify for a subsidized or free school lunch, and almost none for children who could afford to pay full price.
Hispanic children boosted their test scores by 54 percent in one year, probably because they learned English. Black children improved by 17 percent. There was no detectable difference for white children.
The problem with the research, said David Blau, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina and author of “The Child Care Problem,” is that it focuses on very high-cost, high-quality programs unlikely to be duplicated in a broad public system. “What we don’t know,” he said, “is whether, if you scale it down, you get proportionally smaller but similar kinds of benefits. If you cut the costs in half, do you get half the benefits? Or is there some threshold before you get benefits?”
Blau is right on target. Head Start and state-funded pre-schools for the poor rarely provide a high-quality program; it costs too much, even for a small group. “Universal” pre-school inevitably would be the sort of program that duplicates what happens in middle-class homes and isn’t intensive enough to help truly disadvantaged children.