TCS Daily

The False Promise of Universal Pre-school

By Joanne Jacobs - April 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Universal, free pre-school for all four-year-olds. Sounds great, especially if you're a working parent shelling out thousands of dollars a year for private pre-school and child care. Let the state pay for it!

But most middle-class children don't need pre-school to reach their full potential. Poor children need a lot more -- high-quality, high-cost, full-day child care starting well before the age of four.

Californians want state-funded pre-school, concluded a survey by First 5 California, the state commission created in 1998 by Proposition 10 (the cigarette tax surcharge) to fund health and education programs for young children. Sixty percent of those surveyed supported universal (but voluntary) pre-school for four-year-olds. Not surprisingly, 83 percent of parents of young children say they'd enroll their child in a free pre-school.

Currently, 14 percent of California's four-year-olds attend state-funded pre-kindergarten aimed at disadvantaged children. In 2002-03, the state spent $3,143 per child on the half-day program. Yet the quality is poor, says a report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). California met only three of NIEER's 10 quality standards.

Nationwide, only a few states offer an adequate program for disadvantaged children, says the group. Only Georgia and Oklahoma try to offer universal preschool. Serving all four-year-olds with California's current low-quality model would cost an estimated $2 billion a year. Inevitably, universal preschool will not live up to advocates' promises.

False Promises

Advocates claim that pre-school pays off in higher graduation and employment rates, lower rates of welfare dependence and crime. Often they claim Head Start saves $6 or $7 for every dollar spent. This is based on the Perry Preschool Project, which offered far more services than Head Start. Among other things, Perry included home visits to help mothers with parenting problems. The project also hired and trained some of the mothers as preschool aides; their children made the most gains.

Sadly, Head Start's benefits disappear a few years after the child starts school. Head Start isn't intensive enough or academic enough to make a significant difference for children from very deprived backgrounds.

By the age of three, poor children are way behind middle-class children in language skills. In Kansas City, researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley recorded the words spoken in the homes of professional, working-class and welfare families with children from birth to age 3. They wanted to know why their pre-school program had failed to close the language gap between poor and middle-class children.

In professional families, 11- to-18-month-old children heard twice as much language as welfare children. By the age of three, children in professional families averaged a vocabulary of 1,116 words and spoke 310 "utterances" per hour; working class children had 749-word vocabularies and 223 utterances. Welfare children knew only 525 words and averaged 168 utterances. The middle-class three-year-olds had larger working vocabularies than the welfare mothers.

In professional and working-class families, children heard mostly encouraging words; welfare children overwhelmingly heard negative feedback or "don't do that."

In their 1995 book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, Hart and Risley write: "Just to provide an average welfare child with an amount of weekly language experience equal to that of an average working-class child would require 41 hours per week of out-of-home experience as rich in words addressed to the child as that in an average professional home."

The Abcedarian experiment in North Carolina tried to do that. Children from poor families were placed as infants in full-time day care. Teachers had college degrees; aides were trained in child development. Each child was "prescribed" educational activities, generally in the form of games, to develop social, emotional, language and thinking skills.

As young adults, Abcedarian grads showed significant gains in education and employment compared to children from similar backgrounds. They did not catch up with middle-class children. An Abecedarian program would cost about $13,000 per child, double the cost of a year of Head Start and four times more than the average state-run preschool program.

The alternative is to work directly with disadvantaged parents, teaching them how to help their children develop language and social skills. Most could do more if they knew what to do. But it's not easy to change parenting habits learned at mother's knee, so to speak. And most low-income single mothers are now in the workforce; their children will be in some form of non-maternal care.

Children of mothers who've moved from welfare to work show significant gains in language, intelligence and school readiness skills if they attend high-quality child-care centers, says a newly published study led by Susanna Loeb, an assistant education professor at Stanford. The better educated the center teachers, the better the children did.

The study was conducted in San Jose, San Francisco and Tampa with children who averaged two years old in 1998 and four in 2000. Those in day-care centers were compared with children cared for by relatives or by family day-care providers. Center care showed a clear advantage, with no increase in behavior problems.

Universal pre-school will suck up the money that could be used to provide quality child care and pre-school for the kids who will fail without it. By trying to offer something for everyone, the proposal ensures there will be unneeded services for most children, inadequate services for disadvantaged children and a huge bill for a state that's trying to balance the budget without taxing away businesses.

Joanne Jacobs is writing a book about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter school. Her weblog on education and other issues can be read here. She recently wrote for TCS about college and personal essays.


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