Feature

Education: Is universal pre-K worth its cost?

Universal preschool has suddenly become “a hot issue.”

Universal preschool has suddenly become “a hot issue,” said Eleanor Clift in TheDailyBeast.com. President Obama recently called for pre-kindergarten places to be made available to every 4-year-old, a project that would cost $75 billion. New York City’s liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to fund universal early education with a tax on the wealthy. And Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder this month proposed spending millions more on state-funded preschool, joining a growing cadre of GOP governors who’ve launched or expanded pre-K programs. This bipartisan campaign is backed up by educational research, said Betsy Reed in The Nation. Studies show that high-quality preschool helps cultivate the knowledge, habits, and skills that youngsters—especially those from poor backgrounds—need to thrive in later life. The investment in preschools will pay off later, “thanks to the lifelong earnings bump enjoyed by their 5-year-old graduates.”

Actually, the evidence does not support spending billions on universal pre-K education, said Bruce Fuller in The Washington Post. Studies do show that early intervention can help poor kids catch up with their middle-class classmates, who typically arrive at kindergarten four to six months ahead in terms of their oral language and pre-literacy skills. But studies also that find that preschool provides very little lasting benefit for kids from middle-class or well-to-do homes. Those pushing universal pre-K seem more concerned about “economic imperatives than about what’s good for kids,” said Alfie Kohn in HuffingtonPost.com. The programs envisioned by Obama and others would be test-driven and force 4-year-olds to memorize letters, numbers, and facts. This dreary indoctrination “doesn’t leave much time for play,” which is crucial for the development of young minds.

Still, it’s undeniable that disadvantaged kids would benefit from state-funded preschool, said David Brooks in The New York Times. But it’s foolish to expect two years of pre-K alone to overcome the effects of growing up in single-parent homes and chaotic neighborhoods. These kids need extra guidance and support right through elementary school and into high school; it’s in the teen years that so many urban kids with promise go off the rails due to criminal arrests, teenage pregnancies, and dropping out. The real educational challenge is building “a developmental strategy for all the learning stages, from 0 to 25.”

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