Obama’s universal pre-k isn’t universal

President Obama’s pledged “to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America” in the State of the Union speech. His “early learning” plan doesn’t do that, which is a good thing. Obama is focusing on disadvantaged children who may not be learning enough at home to be ready for school.

In short, universal pre-k isn’t universal, writes Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic. Sharing costs with the states, the president would try to improve preschool quality and expand access for four-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. (That tops out at $46,100 for a family of four.) He’d also expand Early Head Start for low-income children from birth through age 3.

Forty-two percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in taxpayer-funded, center-based preschool.

Obama also proposes expanding home visits to high-risk families — young, single mothers — by nurses and social workers. Visits by public health nurses appear to lower the risk of child abuse and neglect — and increase the use of birth control.

Early education helps disadvantaged children — for awhile, writes Emily Richmond, noting the president’s call for states to add full-day kindergarten. She researched that issue in 2007.

The greatest benefits to full-day kindergarten seemed to be for minority children and those growing up in poverty, who were more likely to otherwise arrive unprepared for first grade. But the gains trickled off unless those full-day kindergarten students continued to receive the tailored instructional programs and services they needed as they advanced into the higher grades.

Here’s how I summed the data at the time: “Full-day kindergarten may be a springboard to academic success, but it’s apparently of little use if students are diving into an empty pool.”

Except for a few boutique programs, preschool gains don’t last.  By third grade, Head Start graduates do no better  in school or in social and emotional skills than similar kids who weren’t in the program, according to a federal study that was not released for four years.

Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst asks if we can be “hard-headed” about funding preschool.

Head Start spends about twice as much per child per year as states ($8K per child per year for Head Start vs. $4K for state pre-K). And Head Start includes many program components that are advocated by early childhood experts such as health, nutrition, and parental involvement that are much less prevalent in state pre-K. If a year of Head Start does not improve achievement in elementary school, should we assume that a year of state pre-K does?

Universal pre-k in Georgia produced very slight gains (for the neediest children) at high cost, Whitehurst writes. A Texas pre-k program produced slightly better gains for low-income children.

About Joanne