State-funded “universal kindergarten,” which spread in the ’60s and ’70s, was supposed to prevent school problems. Yet it had a small benefit for whites, but did nothing for blacks, concludes a new study by Elizabeth Cascio, a Dartmouth economics professor, in Education Next.
My results indicate that state funding of universal kindergarten had no discernible impact on many of the long-term outcomes desired by policymakers, including grade retention, public assistance receipt, employment, and earnings. White children were 2.5 percent less likely to be high school dropouts and 22 percent less likely to be incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized as adults following state funding initiatives, but no other effects could be discerned. Also, I find no positive effects for African Americans, despite comparable increases in their enrollment in public kindergartens after implementation of the initiatives. These findings suggest that even large investments in universal early-childhood education programs do not necessarily yield clear benefits, especially for more disadvantaged students.
State-funded kindergarten pulled black children from Head Start, which may have offered a higher-quality program, Cascio notes. White children were less likely to be enrolled in a program, so even a weakly effective kindergarten had some benefits.
Now, of course, many policy makers are pushing state-funded “universal” preschool, while others argue for expanding high-quality preschool programs designed for the neediest children. There will be more political support for preschools that serve everyone, but will these programs offer the academic preparation, especially language development, that most middle-class kids don’t need and most poor kids do?
Use rigorous research to expand what works for needy children, writes Isabel Sawhill of Brookings in Education Week.