The Jefferson Journal

Chris Braunlich


Does "Universal Pre-K" Work?

Pre-school programs help poor children but do little for kids from middle class families. Tim Kaine's proposed $300 million universal program would be largely a waste of money. 


If Governor-elect Tim Kaine keeps one of his key promises, a new state entitlement program will soon come before the Virginia General Assembly: Kaine’s “Start Strong” program of “universal pre-k” education.


Such a program – offering free pre-k education to the children of millionaires as well as the poor – is certain to be expensive. Kaine himself estimates the cost at $5,400 per student, and more than 78,000 Virginia 4-year-olds are currently without any subsidized pre-k schooling (18,500 already receive some form of subsidized pre-school).


Assuming only 70 percent use the new “free” preschool program (an estimate used in other states) the price tag will run nearly $300 million a year – even before we’ve built the classrooms to accommodate these new students.


For the moment, let’s leave aside the question of how Virginians will pay for the program or whether this will develop into a government-managed program putting even more pressure on the public schools. That debate will come when the new Governor lays out specifics.


Instead, let’s focus on first things:  Does this work?


The answer is that, for the vast majority of students, there is little evidence that it does.


The Kaine for Governor campaign website cited a “highly regarded Michigan study, which followed a group of students from low-income families from preschool to age forty.” That study, presumably the one conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation -- the Kaine site doesn’t say, but this is the only one around – showed “positive effects on adult crime, earnings, wealth, welfare dependence and commitment to marriage.”


That’s true. But it’s not the whole story. The project was for pre-schoolers deemed to be at risk for “retarded intellectual functioning and eventual school failure.” It involved a grand total of 123 children (58 in the experimental group and 65 in the control group) who were given one or two years of half-day preschool for seven months and periodic home visits. All of the children were of low socioeconomic status and had IQs in the range of 70 to 85.


It not only wasn’t representative of most children, it wasn’t even representative of a majority of economically disadvantaged children. And it is hardly sufficient evidence on which to hang a $300 million a year program.


Perhaps most telling was the comment of David Weikart, past president of the High/Scope Education Research Foundation that conducted the study: “For middle-class youngsters with a good economic basis, most programs are not able to show much in the way of difference.”


He’s right. Let’s remember that 83 percent of the children eligible for this new taxpayer-financed benefit are not low income kids. And a taxpayer investment of hundreds of millions of dollars should produce results with the target population. So what are the results for those middle-class children?

  • Georgia’s pre-school program has served more than 300,000 children at a cost of $1.15 billion.  A 2003 report by Georgia State University researchers tracked students for five years, finding that any test scores from preschool “are not sustained in later years.”

  • A November 2005 study from Stanford University and the University of California in Berkeley looked at 14,000 kindergartners. They discovered that preschool hinders social development and created poor social behavior, including bullying, aggression, and a lack of classroom participation.

  • Another November 2005 study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that those behavior problems were still evident in third graders who had spent more, rather than less, time in preschool centers.

  • Children’s Hospital and Boston College published a July 2005 study finding that suburban children enrolled in a high-quality preschool program did no better than other suburban kids who did not enroll in such programs.

  • Head Start co-founder and current Yale professor Ed Zigler notes, “There is a large body of evidence indicating that there is little if anything to be gained by exposing middle class children to early education.”

Admittedly, there is evidence that pre-school programs can make a difference for low-income, at-risk children. But the expensive program planned by the Governor-elect is designed for everyone and there is little evidence to suggest it will have any more effect on wealthy kids than a babysitting program that ought to be paid for by their parents.


Members of the General Assembly should be warned: Across Virginia, taxpayers are increasingly asking questions about the rising cost of public school education. Those questions will only intensify when struggling couples making $28,000 a year are asked to pay through taxes for the pre-school choices of middle-class and wealthy families.  


-- December 12, 2005









Chris Braunlich is a former member of the Fairfax County School Board and Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, the leading non-partisan public policy foundation in Virginia.


You can e-mail him here:



Note to readers:


Following publication of this piece, officials from the Virginia Department of Education pointed out that my paragraph about the Virginia drop-out rate “overstates the problem,” because Grade 9 is historically a “balloon” year with larger enrollment because of students who are retained.  I’m happy to acknowledge the statistic and their comment.


Comparing Grade 9 to Grade 12 is an “overstatement,” but it is also still a problem.  Even if one compares the number of students in Grade 8 (before the “balloon”) with those who graduate five years later, we somehow “lose” about 15 percent of our student population  -- nearly 14,000 students in 2005’s graduating class – and more than double our “graduation rate.” It’s a problem that long predates both Governor Warner and the SOL tests, and one which desperately needs to be addressed.


-- Chris Braunlich