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As universal pre-K gathers steam, what are the pros and cons experts see?

Critics question whether universal pre-K is the best option to close educational gaps between low-income and better-off children

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Prekindergarten students play outside during recess at Utah Community Action Head Start in Murray on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. President Biden is promoting universal pre-K to help families.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In an age of partisan contention, federal support for making prekindergarten classes available for all toddlers seems to be gaining steam with broad bipartisan support.

Universal pre-K is an integral part of President Joe Biden’s policy proposals targeting families, too. But critics question whether it’s the best option to close educational gaps between low-income and better-off children, or whether putting limited resources elsewhere would help struggling families and their children more.

In “The Drawbacks of Universal Pre-K: A Review of the Evidence,” a new report from the New York-based Manhattan Institute, senior scholar Max Eden argues that studies cited to promote “universal pre-K” are too old so they lack relevance now. The criticism comes even as Eden notes that two-thirds of Republicans and 90% of Democrats want Congress to increase investment in early education.

Even critics agree universal pre-K would boost women’s workforce participation and reduce gender-based workplace inequality. What’s in question is whether the effort would provide enough long-term benefits to children to justify the cost or if expanding tax credits or offering a child allowance would help families with children more.

Eden, who recently joined the American Enterprise Institute, is convinced that “while early education can be a profound boon for deeply disadvantaged students, it can also set disadvantaged students further back and potentially do lasting harm to students born into middle-class families.”

He fears some children will be too stressed by preschool, creating more harm than good, or they may lose out on time they’d otherwise have with caring parents. He told the Deseret News he’d rather see government give parents financial resources to spend as they wish by expanding tax credits or creating a child allowance.

Others are steadfast in the belief that universal pre-K would help all children. That group includes Jennifer Godfrey, CEO and Head Start director for Utah Community Action, which runs 112 classrooms that give 2,000 income-qualified Utah children a learning boost before they ever hit kindergarten.

While her program is designed for children who might be socioeconomically at risk of falling behind, she believes high-quality pre-K programs “help us build a solid foundation for learning that is truly lifelong. It sets that stage for future school success a child maybe wouldn’t have.”

The years between 3 and 5 are when children learn how to interact with peers and teachers, Godfrey said, and they find out how their parents are going to engage in their education. Those little kids even start to discover and develop interests that could stay with them their entire lives. And they’re learning critical social and emotional skills, she adds.

Proponents have long said for every $1 spent in early childhood education, society gains more than $7 in benefits, from reducing teen pregnancy to having more students complete high school, as well as better school performance and less likelihood of being jailed.

Is that really true of children who aren’t disadvantaged? Eden has some doubts.

“For some kids, you are taking them out of a loving and stable family structure and possibly putting them in a stressful place where they will just not be able to be nurtured and grow in the way that they would if they were in the home for those years,” he said.

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Mentor lead teacher Adriane Kallinger gathers toys from prekindergarten students at the end of recess at Utah Community Action Head Start in Murray on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Fading benefits?

The primary difference in outcomes could simply be a matter of motivated parents, wrote Katharine B. Stevens, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, in a USA Today opinion piece. Because preschool is largely voluntary, parents who are motivated to find a program, enroll their kids and get them there are “engaged” parents. And children whose parents are engaged are more likely to thrive. She thinks the studies show that correlation, not that preschool causes the better outcome.

But even skeptics say studies find kids in pre-K are more ready to attend kindergarten. That means kindergarten teachers needn’t spend so much time getting kids used to being in school and showing them how to behave. Plus, children will have learned basic concepts like letter formation, the alphabet, colors and shapes in preschool.

Critics say those benefits don’t last, a problem when society invests heavily in a program. Eden calls it “fadeout,” where children who didn’t go to preschool catch up with pre-K-educated peers by about second or third grade, depending on the skill.

Others say that criticism is overblown. Of course the advantage of knowing basic skills fade when others learn them, said Meghan McCormick, a research associate at MDRC, a New York-based nonpartisan social and education policy research group. Kids will learn basics like letter shape by the end of preschool if they attend; otherwise, they’ll know it by the end of kindergarten.

But she said kids who go to high-quality pre-K programs do better than others in terms of more complex learning, like vocabulary use, problem-solving or critical thinking. Those skills aren’t as easy to teach as how to recognize the letter N or the color blue, but they also better predict long-term benefits.

“At this point in our economy, more so than ever during this pandemic, it has been made abundantly clear that parents rely on early childhood education to work. And it’s not necessarily a realistic idea that we’re going to go back to a world where parents don’t work and kids are home with their parents,” McCormick said.

Eden and other critics don’t doubt findings from early studies that drive support of universal pre-K, but they say the studies are too old to be relevant today and they focused on a small group of severely disadvantaged kids. One that’s often cited, for instance, took a small group of kids and poured a lot of resources into their preschool experience. He notes universal pre-K is probably not comparable. Some studies are now decades old, as well, while the world has changed.

Proponents including McCormick counter that the biggest change since the older studies were published is how many families have two parents who must work to afford the cost of living. That means the need for high-quality programs for children has really grown.

Cities and states have expanded preschool, too, and tout the benefits, including a more robust workforce participation for women. One study found, for instance, that when Washington, D.C., boosted preschool, females in the labor force increased 10% and household incomes rose.

Many universities have gone all-in on pre-K programs, offering their own to students while training future providers. Rasmussen University outlined benefits and worries tied to universal pre-K. On the negative side are potential funding challenges, increased pressure on teachers and the possibility that home child care providers could suffer if children leave their care for formal pre-K programs.

Eden points out that school hours tend to be set, without regard to what hours parents actually work. Trying to match a public preschool schedule with parents’ work hours could prove burdensome.

The Urban Institute has noted that child-related tax credits can be used at programs that match a parent’s working hours. But families that need the help might not have the money when they need it to pay for care or programs, since those tax benefits are paid out once a year.

Rasmussen University’s potential advantages includes greater access to high-quality early learning, reducing the quality gap in preschool education, more diverse classrooms and more parental involvement in children’s education.

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Prekindergarten students play outside during recess at Utah Community Action Head Start in Murray on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Early findings

One oft-cited study of pre-K value is the Perry Preschool Project, conducted in the 1960s, which showed great short-term gains that faded by age 10. Even so, Eden wrote, “the long-run benefits, however, were nonetheless striking.”

By age 27, the preschool group had more high school graduates or folks who got a general education diploma. Far fewer of the women were single parents, and just 4% had had an abortion, compared to 23% in the comparison group. Males in the preschool group earned more, too. By age 40, roughly half as many from the project had been jailed and fewer had been arrested for violent crimes or selling drugs, compared to those who didn’t attend the preschool.

Economist James Heckman studied the project and found even the participants’ children had lasting positive effects.

But in his report, Eden questioned how well studies a half-century old would compare to universal pre-K proposals today. He sides with Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst, who reportedly said early education advocates “use statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts, for support rather than illumination.”

Eden’s review of research suggests to him that the impact on children from low-income, single-parent families could be beneficial, but he doubts benefits extend to others. It would be better, he said, to give parents resources through vehicles like the child tax credit or direct financial subsidies and let them decide what they need, whether it’s early education or improving the conditions that their children live in at home.

While Head Start programs are for children in lower-income families, Godfrey calls high-quality preschool programming “amazing for any child.” She believes that Head Start, while created for low-income families, could be a partner in a broader model for all preschoolers, regardless of family income. “I really think we could see early childhood take on this role of being that strong foundation for early learning and future school success that is so needed” for all children, she said.

McCormick thinks Eden sells universal pre-K short. “We know that children who attend pre-K benefit in terms of their academic skills and their social-emotional skills at the end of the program,” she said.

She also notes that even if some advantages fade between children who attended compared to those who didn’t, there’s no telling what would have happened to those children if they hadn’t been in the program. They might be even further disadvantaged.

McCormick said it’s likely that children who didn’t attend pre-K programs will pick up skills and habits from those who did: “They kind of bring up everybody else.” Studies in North Carolina found that children in general benefitted from the existence of high-quality pre-K programs, whether they attended or not.

The thinking is that children pick up better behavior from those who’ve already learned how to be in school. If children have learned to regulate emotions and modify behaviors, less time is devoted to that, allowing more for other things.

Rooting out redundant instruction would need to be done, McCormick said, and efforts are being undertaken to smooth transitions between pre-K and kindergarten. Unless pre-K is universal, though, kindergarten will remain where some learn basics in a group setting.

Her endorsement is not without caveats. Programs must be well-designed. “There’s just a lot more to learn on this topic before saying universal pre-K is not a good investment. I think it’s more like universal pre-K is one mechanism through which we can promote more equitable outcomes for kids. And we can support learning and development and help kids start school on the right foot. But we have a lot more work to do to learn how to build and scale high-quality systems, not just in early childhood, but that align with kids’ learning as they move into elementary school.”

Godfrey predicts that the pandemic will make high-quality pre-K programs even more important.

“The pandemic has put a lot of stressors on households that we could have never predicted. For some of them, it is going to generate loss of income. For some it is social isolation. Others are facing things like domestic violence and levels of food insecurity within their home that we can’t even begin to fathom. ...If the economics of a household becomes unstable, housing becomes unstable, so it starts to create these environments that we do not know the fallout for yet,” said Godfrey.

“So regardless of what economic level we are talking about, we are truly talking about just children impacted by this pandemic. What’s imperative is we give them a sense of normalcy and a safe space to learn. I don’t care if that is your middle-income children or your income-eligible child for Head Start. This is something for all of us to embrace,” she said.