Obama’s Preschool Push Is Backed By Faulty Evidence

April 16, 2013

By Casey Given

Last week, President Obama’s released his long overdue 2014 budget, drawing cheers and jeers for its bold education initiatives. Most notably, the budget aims to expand state pre-kindergarten programs by nearly doubling the federal cigarette tax to $1.95 a pack. While my colleague Jason Hughey has already analyzed the contradictory fiscal effects of this peculiar proposal, noting that it discourages smoking as a means of raising revenue, I’d like to point out another flaw in the president’s logic. Namely, the evidence the President loves to point to in support of pre-kindergarten education doesn’t exist.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that “study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.” Specifically, he alluded to a study that concluded “[e]very dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, and even reducing violent crime.” Sadly, the President failed to cite his source for the seven-dollar statistic, the HighScope Perry Preschool Project, which one famous study concluded “provided taxpayers a return on investment of $7.16 on the dollar.” The problem is President Obama, and countless other pre-kindergarden proponents who have cited this study over the years, radically take its conclusion out of context.

The HighScope Perry Preschool Project was an experiment conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan in the early 1960’s that studied the effect preschool education had on children deemed at risk for “retarded intellectual functioning and eventual school failure.” That’s right, the Perry Project studied special needs children, not children in general as the President misleadingly suggests. Furthermore, the Perry Project invested more than triple the amount per student than most state-run preschool programs today. Whereas the Perry project spent $19,000 per pupil in today dollars, the average state preschool program today invests $6,100 per pupil. These two factors alone make the Perry Project incomparable to the size and scope of what the President is proposing.

Even the Perry Project’s positive results are disputable. Although the Perry children performed well compared to special needs students in the experiment’s control group, they still fared worse than the population in general. As Darcy Ann Olsen of the Cato Institute explains, “nearly one-third of participating children dropped out of high school, nearly one-third of the children were arrested, and three of five participating children received welfare assistance as adults.” Is this really the seven dollars of savings President Obama is praising?

Regardless, no experiment since Perry has reported comparably positive results among students in general, making President Obama’s comparison to the special needs study disingenuous. To be fair, the President has pointed more contemporary examples of state government preschool programs that supposedly show positive results, but even these are severely misstated. For example, the President pointed to Georgia and Oklahoma’s public preschool programs in his State of the Union, claiming that “studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.” However, he failed to mention that both programs were started in the late 1990’s, meaning that the oldest graduates of are in their early twenties – hardly long enough to “hold a job” or “form more stable families.” The long-term results of these two state programs will not be conclusively seen for years into the future and are thereby deceptive examples to mention today.

Fortunately, there is one long-term, state-run, pre-kindergarten program that we can turn for guidance in whether President Obama’s claims hold water – Head Start. Launched in 1965, this federal program has had over 22 million participants over the decades, offering loads of data about the effects of preschool education. Sadly, study after study has proven Head Start to be a colossal failure, with negligible to no benefits coming from billions of dollars. In fact, the most recent study of the program from the Department of Health and Human Services reported that there is “little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.” Unsurprisingly, President Obama has remained eerily silent on Head Start on his preschool campaign, rather focusing on the abovementioned examples that are incomparable to what he’s proposing.

Indeed, the President cherry-picks the evidence on pre-kindergarten education to push his agenda. The Perry study of the past and state-run preschool programs of the present are not analogous to the size and scope of the program the President is proposing. Meanwhile, the one analogous example the president has with Head Start is eerily ignored since it conclusively demonstrates the harmful effects the federal government has in central planning education. Relying on faulty evidence while ignoring relevant ones is too much of a gamble, especially when $75 billion and millions of children are at stake.

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