- Progressives embrace pre-K as a solution for disadvantaged students who need help to develop academically and emotionally.
- Business leaders concerned about workforce quality have helped to generate Republican support for pre-K programs.
- While studies do confirm some pre-K benefits, the research fails to confirm the presence of consistent long-term benefits from pre-K programs.
Each year about 4 million children enter kindergarten in the United States. All parents hope their child will start school ready for success. And many parents turn that hope into action, seeking out supportive high-quality early learning opportunities. Unfortunately, not every parent finds these opportunities, and access differs based on geography, race and income.
As a result, too, many children enter kindergarten a year or more behind their classmates in academic and social-emotional skills. For some children, starting out school from behind can trap them in a cycle of continuous catch-up in their learning. As a nation, we must ensure that all children, regardless of income or race have access to high-quality preschool opportunities. . ..
Significant new investments in high quality early education are necessary to help states, local communities and parents close the school readiness gaps between disadvantaged children and more advantaged peers. Across the country, we must expand access to high-quality early learning to ensure that all children graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, careers and life.
A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America
U.S. Department of Education
The above paragraphs, from a 2015 U.S. Department of Education document,A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, offers a succinct summary of why and how progressives and the American Left advocate for the expansion of preschool education.
From the Left’s perspective, pre-kindergarten is a simple idea: provide pre-K programs for all children while at the same time providing working parents access to affordable childcare in a safe and nurturing environment. At-risk children and children from low-income families receive services to help them academically and developmentally. Struggling families get help with childcare. With pre-K, children win, families win, and society wins. Problems are addressed before they develop, saving years and considerable expense.
These are the arguments driving adoption of universal pre-school education in North Carolina and elsewhere. Advocates wonder: who could be against government pre-K programs?
Conservatives should be wary about embracing such claims for several reasons. First the claims about the benefits of preschool are far from settled.[i]What should be equally concerning however, is what isn’t said in the debates or talking points about universal pre-K. Let’s also remember, universal pre-K education extends the reach and control of government into the lives of pre-school children. Moreover, universal pre-K is rooted in a belief that conservatives contest: that government should be the solution to all problems.
Advocates for universal pre-K say it’s a valuable tool for solving our nation’s education and workforce problems. This thinking reflects a highly statist view of education. Instead of serving the individual, education is viewed as a tool in service of the state. Many of the loudest advocates for pre-K conflate education —including preschool —to merely a workforce issue. That’s a mistake.
|NC Child Care Snapshot|
|2016 NC Total Population||9,940,828|
|2016 NC Children 0-4 years old||605,960|
|2016 NC Children 5-9 years old||644,338|
|2016 NC Children 10-14 years old||651,337|
|2016 NC Children Total children under 18||2,286,390|
|NC Children under 5 as % of population||6.1%|
|NC Children under 18 as % of population||23.0%|
|Child Care Highlights|
|Number of Regulated NC Child Care Centers||4,607|
|Number of NC Children enrolled in Child Care Centers||246,662|
|NC Family Child Care Homes|
|Number of NC regulated family child care homes||1,878|
|Number of NC Children enrolled in Family Child Care Homes||11,820|
|Number of NC Children Served||63,509|
|Total Number of NC Regulated facilities||6,485|
|Total Number of NC Children enrolled in regulated facilities||252,442|
|Source: Division of Child Development and Early Education, NC Department of Health and Human Services. Available online at: https://ncchildcare.ncdhhs.gov/County/Child-Care-Snapshot#CCDF|
Pre-K In North Carolina
Despite the previously mentioned red flags, the demands of a changing workforce, growing economic pressures and the desire to end the achievement gap have helped to propel the creation of a record number of government pre-K programs in North Carolina and elsewhere. Proposals for expanding pre-K and universal pre-K programs have multiplied over the past decade.
North Carolina’s first large scale pre-K program, More at Four, was introduced by Gov. Mike Easley in 2001-02. The program is currently administered by the Division of Child Development and Early Education within the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. More at Four was designed to provide a basic preschool education for at-risk 4-year-olds. Since its inception, More at Four (since re-named NC Pre-K) have provided services for over 350,000 children.
In 2016-17, NC Pre-K enrolled more than 27,000 children across North Carolina. Total funding in 2016-17 was about $163 million, with about $76 million in state funding, $73 million in funding came from the NC Education Lottery, along with about $13 million in federal funding. State funding does not cover the full cost of pre-K. This is by design. NC Pre-K requires that programs demonstrate that they are using other funds to maximize resources. These may include local funding, Title I, Head Start or other Pre-K funding. Parents are not charged for NC Pre-K services.[ii]A 2017 study by NC DHHS found the overall average cost for a slot in NC Pre-K program was $9,126, with state funding covering 61 percent of the cost or approximately $5,534.[iii]
To qualify for NC Pre-K, a child must be 4 years old by August 31st of the year they enroll and must come from a family whose gross income is equal to, or less than, 75 percent of the state median income. Children can also qualify for the program by having other non-income-based factors such as limited English proficiency, a chronic health condition, developmental/educational need and military family status.[iv]
When discussing preschool education in North Carolina, it is important to realize that North Carolina does not provide any government-owned preschools as part of a traditional public-school program. Rather, the state pays for NC-Pre-K slots in private daycares, federal Head Start preschools and in public schools. Enrollment is generally split evenly among programs in public and private programs.
The first proposal for universal pre-K at the federal level was rolled out by President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union speech. The proposal titled, “Preschool for All,” pledged $75 billion over ten years. Under the plan, the federal government would provide most of the funding for “high quality” preschool for families earning up to 200 percent of the poverty line with a 4-year old. In addition, the proposal provided incentives for the states to offer pre-school to middle-class families. The incentives essentially allowed states to expand services to middle class families, thus creating a near “universal status” for pre-K services.
Obama’s proposal reflected support among the Left and others for the cause of universal pre-K. That support was reflected in universal pre-K language being included into the North Carolina Democratic Party Platform (2016) as well as the 2016 National Democratic Party Platform during its convention in Charlotte.
In recent years, numerous bills have been introduced recommending changes to the NC Pre-K program. Aside from HB 90 and the budget bill (SB-99) which included additional funding to expand NC Pre-K, almost all of the legislation has been championed by Democrats. Some of the most noteworthy legislation included: SB 726, (Go Big for Early Childhood); HB 888 (expand funding and NC Pre-K eligibility); SB 430 – Governor’s Budget (expand funding and eligibility); SB 439 (eliminate the NC Pre-K waitlist), HB 610 (expand NC Pre-K funding for Tier III counties). All the bills except for HB 90 and SB 99, including the state budget, died in committee.
However, with recent gains by Democrats in the North Carolina House and Senate and the loss of veto proof majorities by Republicans, that could change.
Republicans enter the conversation over pre-K
Instead of viewing pre-K as an issue entirely owned by the Left, of late, it seems the issue has gained popularity among Republicans. Why? According to Sara Mead of Bellwether Education Partners, the pre-K issue draws female and Latino voters, groups the Republican Party struggled with during the last two presidential elections.[v]
Those sentiments were reflected in the passage of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind. ESSA was passed by Republican majorities in the House and Senate and is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, legislation that defined an expansive role for the federal government in education. While ESSA narrows the scope of the federal role in education, the legislation fully incorporates state and local efforts to expand early childhood education. Among other things, the legislation also establishes Preschool Development Grants which help states identify ways to more effectively advance preschool education.[vi]
It wasn’t until business leaders —many of them Republican —began to speak out, that the issue of pre-K expansion or universal pre-K in North Carolina gained visibility. In early 2017, prominent Republican donors in North Carolina like Jim Goodnight, CEO of statistical software giant SAS, recommended big enrollment increases in the state’s pre-kindergarten program as part of a Business Roundtable study commission reporton improving literacy.[vii]
At a press conference to discuss the commission’s recommendations, Goodnight said that he would ask Gov. Roy Cooper to focus on three goals: 1) creating a comprehensive and coordinated system of programs for children from birth through eighth grade that ensures accountability; 2) connecting data systems that allow for early intervention; and 3) expanding NC Pre-K enrollment.[viii]
As reported in the Raleigh News & Observer, business leaders increasingly view pre-K education as critical for improving student reading skills and job readiness. Tom Nelson, CEO of Charlotte-based National Gypsum Co., summed up the sentiments of many executives at the Roundtable press conference when he said, “If we want to ensure that all children in North Carolina are reading proficiently by the end of third grade, we need to expand our NC Pre-K program for all eligible children.[ix]
In the summer of 2017 legislators at the General Assembly agreed to expand the NC Pre-K program an additional 1,725 slots for 2017-18 and an additional 3,525 slots for 2018-19. Lawmakers scheduled an additional $82.1 million for 2020 funding and expansion of NC Pre-K and $91.3 million for the same in 2020-21.[x]In 2018, NC-Pre-K had a total budget of $163.8 million.[xi]
Clearing the noise over pre-K
The Left has been successful in advocating for government pre-K programs and universal pre-K in part because pre-K is a tool that has been expansively defined to aid a variety of causes.
Many of the Left say pre-K can put students from disadvantaged backgrounds on equal footing. Pre-K can help eliminate the achievement gap and improve social mobility. Pre-K can help remove the burden of time and finances on families simply by giving them more education. Proponents have managed to confer on Pre-K programs the expectation that children will be achievers, socially mobile and inoculated against being “average” – simply by attending pre-K.
More pre-K programs have gained in popularity among Republicans concerned about work force issues as well as those who use the issue to appeal to women and Latino voters. The fact is, pre-K often serves as a feel-good Republican talking point, simply because the public assumes Republicans won’t support it. As such, Republicans have not embraced pre-K for the best of reasons, but more for political calculation. The current climate has also made it difficult for conservatives to dispassionately assess research and discuss the significant shortcomings of pre-K findings.
Before contemplating a major pre-K expansion in North Carolina, it would be wise to ask important questions and review some of the major problems with the existing research on preschool programs.
- Is pre-K the best way to address the achievement gap and help young families with childcare?
- Has pre-K delivered on improving social mobility and the achievement gap?
The best way to help answer both questions is to review the research on pre-K. The origin of any research on pre-K programs begins with Head Start, the most prominent preschool program in the country. Many people know about it, but few know about its outcomes. Head Start has been evaluated using a variety of sophisticated research designs. No matter the design however, the results have been disappointing. It’s been widely reported that Head Start appears to produce modest benefits during the preschool years, but those effects do not last into kindergarten or even the early elementary school years.
In an informative article about the unfulfilled promise of universal preschool, David Armor and Sonia Sousa reviewed the research on Head Start and concluded:
It would be similarly unwise for the federal government to invest $75 billion in universal preschool when it is not at all clear that Head Start or other preschool programs have positive long-term effects on participants. The HSIS evaluation, the Bernardy study of the same data and the Tennessee study remain the most rigorous studies conducted to date on the effectiveness of preschool programs. These studies do not find preschool to be effective in increasing long-term cognitive or social and emotional outcomes. In cost benefit terms, we cannot claim that the $18,000 per child Head Start program is cost effective.[xii]
In a 2018 article that garnered significant attention concerning pre-K and the achievement gap, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute analyzed the premise that free and available pre-K education is the surest way to provide opportunity for all children to succeed in school, and that programs provide predictable and cost-effective positive impacts on children’s academic success. Whitehurst found the evidence to support the assertion weak. He cited only one randomized trial of a scaled-up pre-K program with follow up to elementary school. Contrary to expectation, by the second or third grade, achievement favored the control group, who had not participated in pre-K. The Whitehurst study analyzed the impact of state pre-K and later academic achievement and found:
- No association between states’ federal reported scores on the fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in various years and differences among states in levels of enrollment in their state’s pre-k programs five years earlier (whenfourth-graders would have been in preschool)
- Small positive and not statistically significant associations between NAEP scores and earlier pre-K enrollment when NAEP scores are adjusted to account for differences between the states in demographic characteristics of students taking NAEP
- No association between differences among states in their gains in state pre-K enrollment and their gains in adjusted NAEP scores [xiii]
Whitehurst then went on to say that even under the most favorable circumstances “increasing pre-k enrollment by 10 percent would only raise a state’s adjusted NAEP scores by a little less than one point in five years and have no influence on the unadjusted NAEP scores.”[xiv]
In a parting shot to pre-K advocates, Whitehurst says, “Unabashed enthusiasts for increased investments in state pre-K need to confront the evidence that it does not enhance student achievement meaningfully, if it all. It may of course, have positive impacts on other outcomes, although these have not been demonstrated. It is time for policymakers and advocates to consider and test potentially more powerful forms of investment for positive outcomes in education and life.” [xv]
Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education and Director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation has added to our understanding of pre-K literature by highlighting the tendency of pre-K advocates to cite one of two studies that found benefits for preschool attendance but mention nothing about the flaws and limitations of each study. For example, the Perry Preschool Project is frequently cited when making arguments in favor of preschool education. Perry was an expensive, multi-year program carried out 50 years ago with African American children whose mothers stayed at home and received home visitation by preschool teachers. The control group had no other preschool services available to them. Thus, considering the special circumstances and conditions, it is difficult to legitimately extrapolate the results to a larger setting.[xvi]
A second study that pre-K advocates frequently cite but turn a blind eye to when it comes to shortcomings, is the Abecedarian Project. Burke says that it too has significant flaws. As with Perry, Abecedarian Project participants also had positive outcomes in adulthood, including a greater likelihood of attending college, lower rates of teen pregnancy, and increased employment in skilled jobs. As with Perry, Abecedarian suffered from many of the methodological shortcomings, including violation of random assignment rules, small sample size, lack of finding replication, and management of the evaluations by the program developers themselves.
According to Burke, the limitations of Perry and Abecedarian — including the dated nature of the evaluation—should largely exclude the findings from considering of the efficacy of subsidized preschool evaluation.[xvii]
Despite our tendency to ignore contradictory facts, a strong case against pre-K and state expansion can be found in the literature. Ron Haskins, a preschool expert went so far as to call universal pre-K “a very bad idea.” Haskins acknowledges that all children should have access to quality early learning opportunities regardless of the child’s family’s ability to afford it. However, Haskins knows, “Preschool can cost as much as $1,000 a month sometimes it costs even more. Daycare for its part often costs more on average than college in most states. The high cost helps explain why more than half of the 3 to 4-year old range miss out on preschool.”[xviii]
Such realities have propelled discussion about pre-K expansion and for universal pre-K to meet the need for all children in North Carolina. Policymakers – and politicians – also know that as currently configured, they have had difficulty expanding and funding current programs. When programs are targeted largely only for the poor and disadvantaged, it’s hard for a program to build a large and vocal constituency. The answer, according to many advocates is to universalize the program. Proponents know that’s the quickest and most effective way to defend a program at budget time.
The current discussion over pre-K in North Carolina has a lot of noise. However, it keeps coming back to a central problem articulated by Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute. McCluskey said, “The reality is there isn’t a good research basis to say that pre-K is good. Preschool has been oversold. People too often speak as if it’s a certainty that preschool has strong lasting benefits.”[xix]
While there has been a push in many states to fund additional pre-K programs, the means are not there. Most states, even with help from the federal government, lack the money to fund preschool for all children. Where programs do exist, models that use private sector services for some students tend to be too expensive. They are often a by-product of regulations and federal subsidies, which work to drive up the costs of services, prompting advocates to ironically argue for further regulation.
So how do conservatives respond to calls from the Left to expand or universalize pre-K in North Carolina and elsewhere? That’s the question we’ll examine in Part II of Toxic Agenda: Reasons to hit the brakes on universal preschool.
[i]Research Review: Universal Preschool May do More Harm than Good, Lindsey Burke, The Heritage Foundation, March 2016. Available online at: https://www.heritage.org/education/report/research-review-universal-preschool-may-do-more-harm-good
[iii]Study Costs and Effectiveness Associated with NC Pre-K slots, Session Law 2016-94, Section 12B-4, as amended by measurability assessments/budget technical corrections, Session Law 2016, Section 5.4, Report to the House Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services and Senate Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services and Fiscal Research Division by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, February 1, 2017. Available online at: https://ncchildcare.ncdhhs.gov/Portals/0/documents/pdf/S/SL_2016-94_Sec_12B_4a-Study_Costs_and_Effectiveness_Associated_with_NC_PreK.pdf?ver=2018-10-22-094114-607
[iv]See NC PreK: North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program. See question: How do I know if my child is eligible to participate in NC pre-K? Available online at: https://ncchildcare.ncdhhs.gov/Home/DCDEE-Sections/North-Carolina-Pre-Kindergarten-NC-Pre-K
[v]See: New National Poll finds bipartisan support for early childhood Education (blog post), Alyssa Haywoode, Eye on Early Education, July 23, 2014 and Pre-K Education Gets seat in Center, Politico, October 22, 2013. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/education-pre-kindergarten-political-campaigns-098630
[xi]Joint Conference Committee Report of the Base and Expansion Budget, Senate Bill 99, North Carolina General Assembly. Available online at: https://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2017/Budget/2018/conference_committee_report_2018_05_28.pdf
[xiii]Does state pre-K improve children’s achievement? Grover Whitehurst, Brookings Institution, Evidence Speaks Reports, Vol. 2, #59, July 12, 2018. Available online at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/does-state-pre-k-improve-childrens-achievement/
[xviii]The Case Against Universal Preschool, Ali Wong, The Atlantic, November 18, 2014, Ryan Bourne, Governing.com August 14, 2018. Available online at: http://www.governing.com/gov-institute/voices/col-child-care-cheaper-more-accessible-deregulation.html