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Lance Izumi


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In his State of the Union speech, Barack Obama made a renewed push for his Preschool for All plan, which would increase federal funding for government preschool programs. With congressional Democrats pushing legislation to implement the plan, the liberal media has dubbed universal government preschool as the new “in” thing in education, despite ample evidence showing it doesn’t work.

Izumi, Lance

After the president’s speech, The New York Times decided that more government preschool is where it’s at. In a column entitled “How Preschool Got Hot,” Times columnist Gail Collins gushed: “All of a sudden, early childhood education is really, really popular. Everybody’s favorite. If early childhood education were an actor, it would be Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep. If it were a video game, it would be Candy Crush or Angry Birds, minus the spyware.”

Collins’ fellow Times columnist Nicholas Kristof penned a piece where he declared, “Against all odds, prekindergarten is gaining ground” and sought to discredit skeptics who oppose the new liberal cause du jour. In addition, the Times ran a lengthy “news” story that attempted to show widespread bipartisan support for increased government preschool programs, highlighting programs in red states like Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama.

The message from The New York Times and the much of the liberal media is that the government-preschool train has left the station and that critics need to get with the program and accept a political and policy fait accompli. A nice neat scenario, but in reality it is all a house of cards.

First, look at the supposed “research” evidence supporting universal government preschool. Proponents cite the success of small boutique programs such as the Perry preschool program from decades ago. However, even universal preschool supporters like Nicholas Kristof admit that these small programs may not scale up and may not “have an impact as great today if they were rolled out nationwide.”

Indeed, a recent rigorous study of Tennessee’s state preschool program, which includes requirements similar to the president’s proposal, shows that students placed in preschool through a lottery system performed worse overall in kindergarten and first grade in math, literacy and language than students who lost the admissions lottery and didn’t attend preschool.

The New York Times columnists and reporters ignore this critical finding. Instead, Kristof, for example, flatly says, “Republican-led states like Oklahoma have been leaders in early education for a simple reason: It works.” Yet, the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and the Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell, writing in Newsday, point out that on a key national examination, “reading proficiency for Oklahoma’s fourth graders has been unchanged since the universal preschool program was put in place [in 1998].”

Obama’s proposal calls for expanding government preschool “to reach additional children from the middle class.” However, there is no long-term evidence that preschool improves graduation rates, crime rates and other indicators for middle-class children. Even Kristof acknowledges this lack of evidence for middle-class children, but that doesn’t stop him from bemoaning the fact that the U.S. ranks 28th out of 34 industrialized countries in the share of four-year-olds in preschool.

Collins, Kristof and the Times also ignore the evidence that increased preschool causes behavioral problems in many children. A massive UC Berkeley-Stanford study of 14,000 kindergarteners found that white, middle-class children suffered declines in their social skills, such as cooperation, sharing and engagement in classroom tasks, after attending long hours of preschool, compared to similar children who remain at home with a parent prior to starting school.

Finally, in terms of politics, universal government preschool is oversold. At a time when grassroots Americans are in open revolt against Obama’s national Common Core education standards, a national preschool program pushed by the federal government will raise red flags with many Americans, even if raises none at The New York Times.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.