Report Challenges Benefits of Universal Preschool

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

A report published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, has detailed the consequences of universal preschool, making the argument that mounting evidence suggests that government-funded preschool fails to fulfill the goals laid out by its proponents.

In "Research Review: Universal Preschool May Do More Harm than Good," Lindsey Burke and Salim Furth, Ph.D. argue that supporters of universal preschool rely on two outdated studies — conducted in 1962 and 1972 — to support their claims. They allege that these studies suffered from methodological shortcomings such as small sample sizes, unrealistically intensive education programs, and skewed demographics. Accordingly, results extrapolated from these studies to tout the benefits of universal preschool should be questioned.

More recent large-scale evaluations of universal childhood education programs should carry more weight in contemporary analyses, they say. Two such studies, one on the federal Head Start program and one on Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K Program, exhibit far less encouraging results. The Head Start Impact Study released in 2012 demonstrated that access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effects on any measure of students' cognitive ability, while a 2015 report on Tennessee's program showed that few achievement gains were sustained by students and some even regressed behaviorally.

Additionally, the report accuses the universal, low-cost day care system in Quebec of making children more anxious and more likely to commit crimes as teenagers. They cite researchers in Canada who released a report suggesting children in Quebec's day-care system were far worse off than if they were being cared for by a family member. It's worth noting that the province experienced a 15% increase in mothers returning to work as a result of the program.

The report concludes by suggesting that "proponents of universal government-subsidized preschool have to grapple with the fact that previous universal programs have failed and had negative social impacts on children." The researchers argue that government subsidies for early education distort market forces and must be funded by higher taxes. The Heritage Foundation is particularly critical of programs that would result in increased spending with demonstrable benefit.

The report encourages policymakers to reject additional federal subsidies for early education. Their work is challenged by scores of policymakers, sociologists, and educators who have outlined the benefits universal preschool for young students, especially for low-income and minority children.

The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think-tank based in Washington, D.C. founded in 1973 as part of the conservative movement that reached its apogee with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. The organization is currently led by former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican, who consistently ranked as one of the most conservative members of the United States Congress.

The Foundation has challenged many progressive ideas percolating in the education sector, including free community college, greater support of teacher unions, and student loan reform. Its most recent findings on universal preschool, something that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders vigorously support, exhibit conclusions that call the utility of the ideas into question.

The full report is available online.

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