I am more politically incorrect than your average guy, so when I heard President Obama call for universal pre-K for 4-year olds in the State of the Union, I cringed. With all the raucous enthusiasm ringing around this issue since the speech, adapting Warren Buffet’s investment approach to public policy might be wise: when everyone is bold, it’s time to be cautious.
In 2006, when I was with California Parents for Educational Choice, we were part of a coalition of organizations that defeated Rob Reiner’s ballot initiative to bring universal pre-K to the state. It was introduced to widespread public approval, but by Election Day garnered only 39 percent of the vote. The electorate came to understand three major elements they did not like:
* Expanding pre-K to everyone, including middle class and upper income families, is hugely expensive and precious little, if any evidence, supports much educational value added for the middle class and wealthy.
* The initiative vastly expanded the existing public school monopoly, which hardly has a resounding record of educational success, especially with poor and minority students. It also mandated collective bargaining, swelling the ranks and economic power of the California Teachers Association, an organization that systematically stands in the way of innovation and reform.
* The academic outcomes were questionable. A Reason Foundation analysis found from 1965 to 2005, 4-year old participation in preschool programs had grown nationwide from 16 percent to 66 percent, but we had virtually no evidence of increased student learning on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) by fourth grade. Oklahoma, with a universal program since 1998, finished dead last on the 2005 NAEP, actually losing four points.
But that was close to seven years ago and admittedly, I haven’t followed the pre-K issue regularly. So I spent the last few days reviewing some studies and data. The key word in the Obama proposal is quality.
We likely can justify a highly targeted effort on kids in failed families or families that simply have no resources – financial, social, emotional, or cultural – to allow their children to mature and develop normally. But when Obama declares, “We know this works,” he overstates and simplifies our experience.