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BOHANON & STYRING: Pre-K isn’t as effective as proponents say

January 14, 2017

Economic AnalysisAfter several years of pilot programs and experiments, the Indiana General Assembly is pondering a major expansion of pre-kindergarten programs. The effort has a head of steam behind it. Proponents ask, “What’s not to like?” Children learn their numbers and letters. They enter kindergarten “ready to learn.” Making new friends socializes them for the coming school experience. Wins all the way around, right?

Be careful here. At the risk of being skunks at the garden party, we’d suggest our legislators answer two questions before committing taxpayers to what will be an expensive “forever” expansion of government.

First, do government pre-K programs “work”? If by success we mean kids who go through Head Start-type programs ultimately wind up learning more than comparable kids who don’t, the answer is pretty clearly no.

Kids who have the Head Start experience do show up at kindergarten with measurably better skills. However, research is also pretty conclusive that these gains “wear off” by about the third grade. By around ages 7 to 9, you can’t tell a kid who had Head Start pre-K from a kid from similar socioeconomic background who didn’t.

Since 1965, taxpayers have poured $180 billion into this well-intentioned effort. Yet, despite many tries, researchers have been unable to identity permanent educational benefits to the kids. Most recently, a mega-research effort sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services followed 5,000 3-year-old kids through third grade. Half were randomly assigned to a Head Start program at age 3. The other half were not in Head Start, but their parents were free to pursue other preschool options. It was supposed to be the study that finally and conclusively showed long-term education gains to Head Start.

However, it showed no lasting cognitive or social benefits. The answer was so embarrassing that release of the study was delayed until just before Christmas 2012 in hopes that no one would notice.

So if pre-K doesn’t buy better education, what does it buy? Well, it does pay for reliable baby-sitting. Which leads to a second, philosophical question: Do we want to see more government-as-parent? As economists, we can’t answer that any better than anyone else. Nonetheless, pre-K expansion does move cradle-to-grave government closer to the cradle. Are we sure we want this?

Maybe this train has already left the station and our legislators are already determined to gun pre-K programs. They should think a little harder before pulling that trigger.•

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Bohanon is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Styring is an economist and independent researcher. Both also blog at INforefront.com. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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