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Pelosi’s Preschool Amnesia
by Lance T. Izumi 6/28/07

Does House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remember what happened in the 2006 elections? She represents the people’s republic of San Francisco, but she must recall that the rest of California overwhelmingly rejected ex-actor/director Rob Reiner’s government-run universal preschool initiative last June. Yet, at her recent children’s summit, Pelosi ushered in a parade of notables advocating for more government preschool.

In her remarks at the summit, Pelosi pushed for more government spending on early childhood initiatives, saying: “We know that these investments in our children today pay off many-fold in later years.” To back up this claim, keynote speaker James Heckman, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, argued that evidence from the oft-cited Perry preschool program in Michigan from the early 1960s shows that at-risk children enrolled in a high-quality preschool program later earn more money, own houses, and avoid welfare and jail at greater rates than at-risk children who didn’t attend preschool. However, in the debate over last year’s Reiner initiative, the arguments of Pelosi and Heckman were found badly wanting.

Lance T. Izumi
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Lance Izumi is Director of Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute and
Senior Fellow in California Studies. He is a leading expert in education policy and the author of several major PRI studies. [go to Izumi index]

Claims that big spending on government preschool programs result in wide long-term societal benefits are built on evidential quicksand. Various studies have shown that any benefits from preschool fade during elementary school. This is unsurprising given the poor quality of many public schools. A 2006 UC Santa Barbara longitudinal study found that “the achievement impact of preschool appears to diminish during the first four years of school.” The few studies on middle-class children found no evidence that attending preschool resulted in lasting benefits. Even among disadvantaged children, the evidence is murky.

The Perry preschool study cited by Heckman consisted of only 58 students, a tiny sample. Further, in the ensuing four decades, not one study has replicated the results of the Perry program. Even well-known preschool boosters such as Yale professor Ed Ziglar have criticized the methodology of the Perry study saying that the students were unrepresentative of both the disadvantaged and mainstream populations.

Finally, as a Reason Foundation analysis pointed out, one third of the children in the Perry study dropped out of high school, one third were arrested, and three out of five participating students went on welfare. Claims, therefore, from the Perry study or others that every tax dollar spent on preschool will result in several dollars in societal benefits aren’t justified by reliable long-term evidence.

Undaunted, at the summit Pelosi released a list of Democratic priorities that included more spending on Head Start, the existing federal preschool program for poor children. Pelosi’s document claims that Head Start has served participants “extremely well for 42 years,” even though a 2001 study by a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics researcher found that “Head Start participation does not have long-term benefits.”

The congressional Democrats seek to raise Head Start preschool teacher qualifications and salaries. However, UC Berkeley researchers have found that claims that increased education qualifications for preschool teachers “further advances child development simply cannot be substantiated to date.” These researchers warn that paying more money to these teachers “will be costly and may not yield significant benefits for children.”

Pelosi said that because great strides have been made in understanding “how positive behaviors [of children] can be encouraged,” policies must “match the latest research.” If that’s true, then she and her Democratic colleagues should be interested in a 2005 Stanford-UC Berkeley study that found that “attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which young children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage classroom tasks, as reported by kindergarten teachers.” The study notes especially, “This slowing of typical rates of social-emotional growth is particularly strong for Black children and for children from the poorest families.”

Pelosi’s misguided quest will result in more Washington bureaucracy and control, plus more disappointing results, all at the expense of our youngest children. This judgment also applies to Hillary Clinton’s recent $10-billion federal preschool proposal. Last year blue-state California gave a resounding thumbs down to more government-run preschool. The rest of the country should now do the same. CRO

copyright 2007 Pacific Research Institute



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