One of the favorite conceits of so-called progressives is an unquestioning faith in the value of “universal pre-K,” or pre-kindergarten. “Universal” means available even to families that can’t afford it, which means that taxpayers pay for it whether they happen to have four-year-olds or not. Another income-redistribution tool.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made universal pre-K a centerpiece of his campaign, and he wasn’t particularly coy about his intention to soak “the rich” to pay for it. (Unfortunately for him, “the rich” he hopes to soak are statewide, not just in New York City, so he will have to convince at least some Republicans in Albany to go along with the scheme — which so far has proven problematic.)
Now Connecticut’s governor has jumped on the bandwagon. In a May 28 event at Hamden’s Helen Street School, Dannel P. Malloy signed into law two bills. One establishes a whole new bureaucracy (hurray!), the ominously named Office of Early Childhood (not Early Childhood Education). The other makes more “free” pre-K slots available starting in 2015, and requires the new bureaucracy to “develop a plan to achieve universal access to preschool across all state-funded preschool programs.” This is supposed to cost the somewhat astounding figure of $100 million over ten years.
At the announcement event, Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr. made this far-fetched claim: “Every dollar we invest in pre-K saves $7 in avoided special and remedial education costs and criminal justice costs. Children who experience quality pre-K have improved performance and behavior in the classroom, are more likely to read at grade level, have higher high school graduation rates, and are less likely to smoke or be involved in crime.”
It turns out this claim is based on a 13-year-old study of a single pre-K and kindergarten program in Chicago using a modest sample size of 1,200 children.
In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said, "Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road." Few will be familiar with the studies the president referenced. But they are well-known inside the universal-early-education movement. The most famous is the Perry Preschool Project.
Perry was a 1960s experiment that was too small to be statistically valid. It involved 123 "at risk" low-IQ (70-85) children from one poor minority neighborhood. The kids were divided into a study group that received two years of high-quality preschool and a control group that didn't. What did all this achieve? The Perry project claimed a large gain in IQ: 15 points. But the gain had disappeared by the end of third grade.
It is unfortunately that in New York and now in Connecticut, what has been almost completely lacking in the “universal pre-K” conversation is critical media questioning of the costs and benefits of institutionalizing four-year-olds in government-run day care in the guise of “schools."
Connecticut must not plunge headlong into a dubious pre-K scheme whose benefits are unproved but whose costs to taxpayers are already acknowledged to be prodigious. For that to happen, the media must hold policy-makers’ feet to the fire to prove spurious benefit claims.