The preschool ‘spin’

BRUCE FULLER is professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. His new book, "Standardized Childhood," will be published later this year.

CONSERVATIVES are often accused of putting ideology before evidence on issues ranging from global warming to evolution. But how do leading liberals and their scholar allies react when one of their own is fudging the data? When it comes to their new cause, universal preschool, liberals seem just as willing to spin the facts.

Take filmmaker Rob Reiner’s bold claim that spending $24 billion in the coming decade on preschool is “the single best way to fix the K-12 system.”

Or listen to state schools chief Jack O’Connell, who’s stumping for the cause, asserting that “every child’s K-12 education will benefit if schooling begins with quality preschool.”

Such claims are seductive in a feel-good political world. But they are not always true. After four decades of research, we do know that young children from poor families benefit handsomely from attending preschool. But under Proposition 82, which will appear on the June ballot, lower-income children would get less than half of the estimated $2.4 billion in new annual pre-school funding that would be raised by taxing the wealthiest Californians. That’s partly because over half of these children already attend free preschool. At least $1.4 billion would go to subsidize better-off parents who can already afford to pay for preschool.


The irony is that the small benefit gained by sending middle-class kids to preschool disappears by third grade, according to a decade-long federal study released last fall. Youngsters in other kinds of child care, including staying at home, catch up with preschool graduates. This fade-out was confirmed earlier this year by UC Santa Barbara education professor and economist Russell Rumberger, drawing from a sample of 10,000 children.

Now Reiner’s operatives -- staging photo ops with politicians cooing over cute 4-year-olds -- want to convince voters that Proposition 82 would yield $2.62 in tax savings for every dollar invested, through lower dropout and crime rates, and would ultimately pay for itself.

This promise stems from a Chicago preschool experiment that helped poor black children two decades ago. A Rand Corp. research team said that if Reiner’s effort were to resemble the Chicago program, then taxpayers would double their money. Now watch for the sleight of hand: Chicago helped each poor youngster for seven years, from age 3 to 8. Staff went to their homes to offer children’s books and parenting techniques, such as positive discipline and teaching parents to “use their words.” No middle-class children participated.

In contrast, Proposition 82 would fund a half-day program for just one year and offer no parent training. University of Minnesota professor Arthur Reynolds, who evaluated the Chicago program, told me that at least one-quarter of its benefits was “due to classroom volunteering, educational workshops and home-visiting activities” and that “this estimate may be somewhat low.”

Overall, Proposition 82 would do little to raise preschool enrollments, boosting the share of California’s 4-year-olds attending from 64% to about 75%, according to the Legislature’s nonpartisan analyst. So, much of the program’s $24 billion over the coming decade would go for improving program quality for everyone. Here again, Reiner ignores the evidence.

Reiner wants all preschool teachers to obtain a bachelor’s degree, hoping to hike their status and wages. Children’s growth curves do rise when their teacher holds a two-year degree in child development and so is better able to organize stimulating activities and offer steady emotional support. No additional gains are detected when the preschool teacher has a four-year degree, although labor costs skyrocket, a finding newly replicated by UCLA and University of North Carolina researchers.

Still, some liberals hold steadfast: By awarding free preschool to better-off parents, they say, enough votes are bought to aid poor children. But at what price? According to UC Berkeley research, we could enroll all kids from families earning up to the state’s median annual income of $54,000 for $640 million a year -- less than one-third the cost of Proposition 82. The remaining money would be better spent on raising the quality of public elementary schools, on which preschool’s long-term benefits depend.

Progressive politicians and scholars should take an honest look at the data, which show that their claims for universal preschool -- however well-meaning -- are exaggerated or wrong.