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Why congressional Democrats should rethink their universal pre-k plan 

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With the State of the Union address approaching, congressional Democrats will likely refocus on President Biden’s Build Back Better program in hopes of passing a bill before November.

Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to the $2.2 billion version of the plan that passed the House in November will force congressional Democrats to revise the legislation. A good place to start would be to rethink the universal pre-k program.

President Biden proposed establishing universal pre-k for 3- and 4-year old children with $109 billion in new spending, citing evidence that expanding access to pre-k provides lasting benefits such as higher test scores through 8th grade and increased economic growth. 

But a new empirical analysis of Tennessee state pre-k program cast big doubts on the benefits of universal pre-k: 

Data through sixth grade from state education records showed that the children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade. A negative effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services, with null effects on retention.”

In other words, disadvantaged children who attended the state pre-k program had lower academic achievement and worse behavioral outcomes than their peers in the control group. 

Vanderbilt Professor Dale Farran, one of the authors of the study, put these findings into context: “At least for poor children, it turns out that something is not better than nothing,” adding that “[t]he kinds of pre-K that our poor children are going into are not good for them long term.”

This isn’t the first rigorous, long-term evaluation of a government preschool program that found disappointing results. A 2012 congressionally-mandated review of the federal Head Start program showed no lasting benefits for participating children by the end of third grade. 

Given the dismal long-term results of the Tennessee and Head Start programs, Congress should consider other ways to use government funding to help young disadvantaged children succeed. 

Consider how much taxpayers spent on the Tennessee and Head Start programs. According to data from the Tennessee state government, the per-child cost of the voluntary pre-k program was roughly $4,800 as of 2017-18. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that Head Start cost more than $11,000 per child as of 2019.

Rather than funding these ineffective programs, policymakers should give pre-k subsidies directly to the parents of low-income children. For example, the government could award children a Head Start education savings account (ESA) that parents could use for preschool or save those funds for future education expenses. 

There’s encouraging empirical evidence giving parents pre-K ESAs would have short and long-term benefits for participating children.

A new evaluation of Indiana’s “On My Way Pre-K” voucher program resulted in long-term academic achievement gains that lasted through 3rd and 4th grade. 

Through the “On My Way” program, 4-year old Hoosiers are eligible for pre-k grants if they live in households with incomes below 127 percent of the poverty line. Indiana regulates which pre-school providers are eligible and limits options to those the state believes to be high-quality.

Beyond higher math and English scores in elementary school, Purdue University researchers also found short-term benefits including that participating children had higher school readiness and early literacy skills than their peers. The Indiana state government reports that parents were overwhelmingly satisfied with the “On My Way” program.

An older study of a different kind of early childhood benefit program should also inform policymakers’ thinking about how preschool subsidies could be better used to help disadvantaged children.

In 2016, Washington University researchers studied an Oklahoma program that gave low-income children $1,000 investments into the state’s 529 program which allowed tax-free savings for college education expenses. The researchers found the program resulted in improved parental expectations for their children’s education, mothers’ mental health, and children’s social-emotional development.

A 2020 Government Accountability Office review found that savings account programs operating across the United States have “positive short-term effects on families, including those with lower incomes.” 

Giving low-income parents control of their child’s share of Head Start or pre-k benefits in an education savings account would improve equal opportunity. Many parents would use the dollars to enroll their child in a high-quality preschool provider. Others may choose to save some or all of their child’s pre-k funds for future education costs (including K-12 school tuition since federal law now allows funds saved in 529 accounts to be used for elementary and secondary school expenses.) 

The Build Back Better plan would have steered millions of American children into state preschool programs that may do more harm than good. A better approach would be to give parents control of existing preschool funds to make the right choices for their children. 

Dan Lips is a visiting fellow with the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity

Tags Joe Biden Joe Manchin

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