Pre-K’s Minimal Impact

Grover  J. “Russ” Whitehurst writes for the Brookings Institution:
The movement for universal and targeted state pre-K has been successful in that enrollment in state-funded pre-K programs for 4-year-olds has doubled in the last 10 years, from 14% to 28% of all 4-year-olds. There has been a concomitant increase in annual spending from about $2.5 to $4.5 billion. Annual spending per child for state pre-K is about $4,000. Thirty-nine states offer state-funded pre-K, with 31 of those states having programs that are targeted for low-income families. When children enrolled in Head Start and other public programs, including special education, are combined with those in state funded pre-K, 42% of the 4-year-olds in the nation are enrolled in a taxpayer funded center-based preschool programs.
A study of universal pre-K in Georgia compared changes in Georgia’s 4th grade NAEP scores before and after the implementation of universal pre-K with changes in the NAEP scores of students in other states in comparable periods in which universal pre-K was not introduced.  This was not an experiment and therefore required sophisticated estimation models. Under the estimation model preferred by the researcher there was no overall impact on the achievement of Georgia’s 4th graders of their prior access to universal pre-K. Under a more generous estimation model, the overall effects were very small (about 2% of a standard deviation increase in NAEP math scores, which is far less than a 1 point increase). The researcher concludes that:
“the costs of the program … greatly outweigh the benefits in terms of potential increased taxable revenue [which] is at least suggestive that the government’s scarce resources would be better spent on more targeted early childhood interventions that have been shown to be more cost efficient.”