In today's Washington Post, former U.S. assistant secretary of education, Chester E. Finn Jr., makes the case against universal preschool:
For all its surface appeal, universal preschool is an unwise use of tax dollars. In a time of ballooning deficits, expansion of preschool programs would use large sums on behalf of families that don't need this subsidy while not providing nearly enough help to the smaller number of children who need it most. It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps 5-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring from preschool. (Part of the energy behind universal pre-K is school systems -- and teachers unions -- maneuvering to expand their own mandates, revenue and membership rolls.)
In a new May 2009 backgrounder, the Heritage Foundation's Lindsey Burke asks Does Universal Preschool Improve Learning? Lessons from Georgia and Oklahoma. For example, in examining Georgia's universal program that spent $325 million on preschool in 2008, she reports on the typical "fade out" problem for universal preschool programs:
From 2001 to 2004, Georgia State University conducted a study of the effects of Georgia's pre-kindergarten program on four-year-olds. While positive gains were reported for children enrolled in the state preschool program on overall math skills and letter and word recognition, many of these gains had dissipated by the end of first grade. Georgia preschoolers, who participated in the study from 2001 to 2004, were above the national norm in letter and word recognition upon preschool entry, but their scores declined by the end of first grade. While the study reported that children showed significant gains over the national norm in terms of problem-solving skills, the gains applied "to the entire sample, including students who did not attend a formal preschool."
The study also stated, "It is important to note that Georgia's preschoolers, including those who had been enrolled in Georgia Pre-K, lost ground against the national norms between the end of kindergarten and the end of first grade on two measures of language skills, although their scores remained well above those achieved at the beginning of preschool." Furthermore, the report notes, "by the end of first grade, children who did not attend preschool had skills similar to those of Georgia's preschoolers."