Proposals for universal preschool and all-day kindergarten are an increasingly popular policy solution for everything from low academic achievement, to reducing crime, to lowering the dropout rate. In summer 2005, a national task force co-chaired by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano called for $8 billion annually in federal support for preschool. Similarly, in his 2006 response to President Bush’s State of the Union Speech, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine acknowledged universal preschool as a silver bullet to help create a better future for the United States. Kaine said, “There’s a Better way… Many states are working to make high quality Pre-Kindergarten accessible to every family.”
States are moving quickly to expand access to state-run preschool. According to Libby Doggett, Pre-K Now’s executive director, states cumulatively have committed more than $14 billion to early education. Arizona, New Mexico, Washington, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia are all considering various models of universal preschool, and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently announced plans to make Illinois the first state in the nation to offer universal preschool to both three-and four-year-olds. California has a universal preschool initiative on the June 2006 ballot. Nationwide, at least 40 states provide state funding for preschool programs, and at least 28 considered legislation to expand state-funded preschool programs in 2005. Three states—Georgia, Oklahoma, and Florida—offer universal preschool.
The movement toward all-day kindergarten is also gaining popularity in the states. Currently nine states mandate full-day kindergarten and seven states offer school districts financial incentives to offer full-day kindergarten. Governors in Arizona, Indiana, and Massachusetts have made full-day kindergarten a top legislative priority in 2006 and many other state legislatures are considering full-day kindergarten proposals. For example, California is considering legislation that would make it mandatory for all California school districts to offer full-day kindergarten by 2010. According to the Education Commission of the States approximately 66 percent of kindergartners already attend full-day kindergarten.
California and Arizona are leading the charge toward universal preschool and full-day kindergarten. California may become the national prototype for universal preschool. Hollywood director Rob Reiner is promoting “Preschool for All,” a June 2006 ballot initiative, calling it “a broad-based, multi-year, non-partisan advocacy campaign to achieve voluntary preschool for all four-year-olds in California.”
While universal preschool for all children sounds like a laudable goal, the Preschool for All Act represents a de-facto institutionalization of preschool in California by creating a new, governmentmanaged $2.5 billion a year entitlement program that subsidizes the preschool choices of middleclass and wealthy families. Although it is a voluntary program, it would change the structure of the current mixed-provider preschool market into a state-controlled monopoly.
California’s Preschool for All initiative would be financed by a 1.7 percent tax increase on individuals who earn over $400,000 (or couples earning over $800,000), pushing the tax rate on upper-income families to a national high of 12 percent. This new tax represents an 18 percent tax increase on wealthy Californians.
Similarly, Arizona’s Governor Napolitano is representative of the national sentiment to incorporate preschool education and full-day kindergarten into the current K-12 public school system. In 2004 Governor Napolitano released a School Readiness Action Plan that included the widely discussed proposal for state-funded all-day kindergarten and a lesser-discussed plan for “state-supported preschool.” Speaking before the National Task Force on Public Education, the governor said her aim was “ensconcing early care and education as a lockstep component of public schooling.” She considers the plan a “starting point” for the state’s role in the “development of Arizona’s youngest children.”
Universal preschool advocates like Rob Reiner and Governor Napolitano argue that early schooling improves academic achievement and offers children long-term academic and economic benefits. Yet this study finds the evidence supporting those claims to be unfounded, at best.
To help determine the efficacy of early education programs, we examine the results of some of the programs considered to be early education models—including, Perry Preschool, Chicago Child Parent Studies, Abecedarian, and Head Start—and find the research to be flawed and therefore of questionable value. We also review information from the National Center for Education Statistics, which reports no lasting reading, math, or science achievement differences between children who attend half-day and full-day kindergarten. We also examine the results of the National Assessment of Education Progress in Georgia and Oklahoma, where universal preschool has been fully implemented without quantifiable benefit. We find the widespread adoption of preschool and fullday kindergarten is unlikely to improve student achievement.
America’s flexible approach to early education gives children a strong foundation. Skills assessment at kindergarten entry and reports by kindergarten teachers show a large and increasing majority of preschoolers are prepared for kindergarten. The effectiveness of the current system is also evident in early test scores. At age 10, U.S. children have higher reading, math, and science scores than their European peers who attend the government preschools cited by advocates as models for the United States. To the degree that the state remains involved in financing early education, we recommend measures for transparency, program assessment, and improved flexibility through individual student funding.