Universal pre-K: 21st century boondoggle

Universal pre-K will be very costly and largely ineffective, argues Checker Finn in the Washington Post.

In a time of ballooning deficits, expansion of preschool programs would use large sums on behalf of families that don’t need this subsidy while not providing nearly enough help to the smaller number of children who need it most. It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps 5-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring from preschool. (Part of the energy behind universal pre-K is school systems — and teachers unions — maneuvering to expand their own mandates, revenue and membership rolls.)

Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia are offering preschool to all four-year-olds. So far, expanded preschool access hasn’t raised school performance in those states.

“Fewer than 20 percent of 5-year-olds are seriously unready for the cognitive challenges of kindergarten,” Finn estimates. Preschool designed for their needs is intensive and expensive — and unneeded by most kids. 

. . .  while a few tiny, costly programs targeting very poor children have shown some lasting positive effects, the overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle-class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school.

Making pre-K “universal” makes it impossible to replicate the programs that have shown long-term effects.

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