Critical Thinking and the Universal Pre-K Debate

“As a business leader, I am concerned,” declares Katherine Busser, a senior vice president for Capital One and chair of the Strong Start Council. “I need a workforce of critical thinkers, team players, and effective communicators. These skills find their roots in the earliest years. High-quality early-childhood education is a solution.”

We can all agree that Virginia needs more critical thinkers in order to compete in a global, knowledge-based trading system. But a little more critical thinking might have helped Busser in her column in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch touting a universal pre-K program.

Busser’s column is long on platitudes and short on data. One of the few numbers she cites is this: Last year, Virginia taxpayers spent $90 million on children who had to repeat a grade between kindergarten and the third grade. The number she neglected to mention was that universal pre-K would cost $300 million a year. Even if universal pre-K reduced drop-outs to zero — a proposition for which there is zero evidence — that still would yield a lousy return on taxpayer investment.

The person displaying an ability to think critically in this debate is not a businessman at all, but a lawyer and politician: Del. Kirk Cox, R-Chesterfield. In a companion column, he asked the tough questions that Busser needs to address:

(1) What would Virginia get for $300 million? Does the price tag include the cost of adding 4,100 classrooms plus intangibles such as training, health care, snacks and support services?

(2) Does universal pre-K help all children? Some evidence suggests that at-risk students might benefit, but there is nothing to indicate that students of middle- and high-income families would gain anything. “Is it right to ask Virginia taxpayers to pay for the child care and preschool choices of millionaires when studies show it may not help these children?”

(3) Does the current program work? “What statistical data — actual results — does the state have that demonstrate improved test scores and proficiencies for those children who enrolled in the Virginia Preschool Initiative program versus those who did not?”

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and other supporters of universal pre-K have have to do better than dish out pious generalities about the importance of early childhood learning. Of course early environmental influences are critical. Of course we want to encourage early learning. But that’s a far cry from justifying the expansion of existing programs targeting at-risk children to a universal program for all.

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21 responses to “Critical Thinking and the Universal Pre-K Debate”

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    I’ve come to the view that most business executives operate in a data-free mode with respect to issues of public policy. Jim’s questions are good and should be answered with facts and not emotions or rhetoric. The answers may or may not support Governor Kaine’s proposals, but let’s look at the data.

    I don’t know Katherine Busser, but I strongly suspect that, if her budget and performance were at issue here instead of taxpayer money, she’d be asking these questions and demanding dadta. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have the job she has.

    We’d probably all be better off, if elected officials of both parties didn’t bother asking high-level people from big companies to serve on important committees or if such people refused.

  2. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley


    How do you know that reducing the drop out rate to zero would yield a lousy return on taxpayer investment?

    “Even if universal pre-K reduced drop-outs to zero — a proposition for which there is zero evidence — that still would yield a lousy return on taxpayer investment.”

    What part of unemployment, social services cost and criminal activity can be attributed to drop outs and what does it cost?

    One more question for your study.

  3. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    JW – Wouldn’t some good evidence be the drop-out rate for children who have been in the Head Start program? That program has been around since the 60s and should have a good data record. I suspect that, to the extent early childhood education makes a difference in the drop-out rate down the road, Head Start should have made a considerable reduction.

  4. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    It’s not the government’s job to train (it’s not education at that age) babies.

    Just as modern folks are clueless on why we have families with a mother and father, they are unaware that every civilization had an age when children could leave the mother and begin education or other training. The ages are 5 to 7. There are sound reasons for this, but then there are profound reasons for having a mother and a father. Maybe the business executives could read a book before they decide to reorder society.

    Again, it’s not the government’s job to train babies.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    same old. same old.

    Talk about a need in very general terms. Suggest that money is the answer and see how many suckers sign up.

    Unlike JAB, I do believe that kids must received training and education regardless where or not their parents are AWOL. What do we do .. abandon kids born to wrong on missing parents?

    I DO believe like JAB – in terms of what is the ideal environment but the real world produces kids without parents and we have a responsibility, Indeed I believe that GOD gives us the duty to be humane to those that need our help – at least the God I know does.

    but anyhow.. back to the issue. The education establishment is a one trick pony.

    Find surrogates to carry their essential message of “more money” for “good purposes”.

    They are worse that these TV offers for $19.99. You’d think listening to them that $19.99 is a Bargain for such magnificent products.

    Put a plan on the table. Show some education systems (models) that have produced results. Agree to sunset a programs that don’t perform. Development baseline and milestone performance standards.

    We actually have an excellent opportunity. Start up Pilot programs at schools where K-3 grades are underperforming with regard to SOLs and NCLB – and lets see if a Pre-K program improves the scores in those pilot schools.

    If they do – spread the program statewide.

    If they don’t boot em…. and I’m betting that the advocates don’t want any of these accountability benchmarks – just more money.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    A better use of funds might be all day kindergarten. It is shocking to see the kind of behavior that today’s 5 year old exhibits. I’ve recently spent time visiting a number of K classrooms in some suburban communities.

    The things I saw stunned me – especially when I compared them to my child (who was five 15 years ago). These are the kinds of things that were the NORM: few knew how to recite the alphabet, almost none could identify more than 5 or 6 letters, most could not write or identify any numbers. They hit, punch, kick, throw chairs – it was like I was witnessing the terrible twos everywhere I went. The teachers dealt with it well & put an immediate stop to the behavior and also tried to teach long-term behavioral changes. But it was quite clear that the MAJORITY of these kids ruled the roost at home.

    Look at the Virginia SOLs for Kindergarten:

    There is NO WAY these kids are going to be able to achieve these goals (and those in years to follow) if they don’t have a full day of kindergarten, or pre-k, or parents who are doing THEIR job at home. I’m not sure of the solution, but from what I’ve seen, something’s got to change.

  7. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Anon 6:43: How many of those 5 year olds were products of daycare? If the answer is all, or most, then what makes anyone think that government daycare will do any better?

    Larry: I’m not talking about an ideal world of wonderful, perfect parents, in the world we live in – government raising babies is a bad idea. The locus of responsibility is in the wrong place, etc etc. If you want to provide for child care when parents can’t, won’t, etc. then move money – tax laws and my idea of Commonwealth Trust Accounts – but don’t make it a function of government.

  8. Jesus.

    Let the kids be kids. They are going to work their tails off soon enough.

    Why move government brainwashing downstream? And why offer to pay for it? Just so the parents can work and pay more taxes?

    Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met were kids, because their minds were not yet polluted.

    I looked at a kid’s drawing once. He had the barnyard below and the blue sky and sun above, and in the middle, nothing. I pointed out the window and said, “See, if you look out there, the sky comes right down to the ground, but in your picture it doesn’t. Why is that?”

    He answered, “Well, you dummy, that’s where the air is.”

    Who am I to say that his depiction isn’t more accurate than the way we actually see things?

    Leave the kids alone.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    My wife teaches. What anon 6:43pm says is true.

    And JAB – it’s PARENTS. When a conference is held about a child’s behavior – BOTH PARENTS say that the child does the same thing at home and they don’t know what to do and cannot control the kid.

    So .. please tell me what should be done… the other 15 kids in the class cannot learn when 5 are raising hell – and in this case – ALL of them have parents – and, in fact, some of the better students have one or none parents.

    This is the ONLY chance that these kids have to grow up… get a job.. join a church… be useful to their community and to others instead of relying on welfare, selling drugs or ending up in prison.

    If you decide that the government is not going to take care of these kids…and help them grow up – then pray tell me who will?

    Even the kids with two bad parents deserve an opportunity and they should not be banished and abandoned because they have bad parents.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Let the kids be kids. They are going to work their tails off soon enough.”

    I used to think that also until I realized that in 15 years.. they’re going to be looking for a job that Japanese kids are going to own.

    I also used to think that before I got told that “kids be kids” means 5 kids can completely destroy the learning environment for 15 kids…. (and again.. I’ll say.. quite a few of those 5 have not only have 2 parents – but 2 church-going parents [you know these things in a rural school with 300 kids]).

    Life is no more REAL than in a 1st grade class … where a teacher is working 10-12 hours a day struggles to somehow advance these kids to the point where they can start to read and write…. and move to 2nd grade.. and so on.

  11. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry, perhaps it’s different in other parts of the state. But in Fairfax County, we already have these programs for at risk children – Head Start, preschool, all-day kindergarten in lower income areas. Fairfax County does not have all-day kindergarten countywide, but has offered it for several years in lower-income areas. We also have smaller class iszes in those same areas for the first few years in elementary school.

    I don’t mind paying taxes to support these programs if they are measured and produce results. I object strongly to Kaine’s attempt to pay off the public sector crowd & the “professional caring class” with another statewide entitlement paid largely by NoVA. Kaine is also trying to suck up the budget surplus on a continuing program so he can call for another statewide tax increase. He should spend his time fighting for land use controls. Now that’s something that most NoVA residents would relish!

  12. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Larry: My wife is a guidance counselor in a school (K-5) that has 20% ‘at risk’ population in edubabble.

    Putting babies in government schools pre-k solves NOTHING. It isn’t the kids only chance.

    Be creative. What incentives – tax breaks, encouragement, etc. could go to organizations and individuals who pair the aging baby boomers with pre-K kids to teach them – at the church, day care, etc – or any of another 100 solutions without making it a function of governement?

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “don’t mind paying taxes to support these programs if they are measured and produce results”

    I could not agree more. I have no truck with the education establishment who want money without accountability usually.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Be creative. What incentives – tax breaks, encouragement, etc. could go to organizations and individuals who pair the aging baby boomers with pre-K kids to teach them – at the church, day care, etc – or any of another 100 solutions without making it a function of governement?”

    JAB – yes.

    we need to evolve it… agree.. but I’m opposed to claiming that we should/could be creative… while doing nothing.

    If you are alluding to the conservative church community as stepping in – I say go for it but I’d hold them to the same standards of measurement and accountability – and I’m not opposed to paying them for that service as long as they behave themselves when it comes to religion… and they have non-discriminatory policies.

    SOLs and NCLB … ARE, in fact, government initiatives that supplanted a totally bogus approach to accountability and performance standards. The reaction of the education establishment… is very telling… in my mind.. when they jump in with both feet talking about “teaching to the test” and depriving kids of creativity ..etc…

    my question is.. what did they do BEFORE .. when they DID have the option of a universe of responses.. and they chose to sit on their hands… while 25% of kids did not graduate .. and close to 50% of blacks, minorities, and economically disadvantaged .. failed.. and dropped out of school. To be.. that is unconscionable and totally incompatible with their stated mission.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    These horrifying behaviors aren’t all coming from “at risk” kids. In fact, most of the kids I saw were middle class, white suburban kids with both mom and dad at home.

    Basically, these moms and dads have failed to do their jobs for the last 5 years. There is NO WAY that a middle class kid comes to kindergarten knowing only 5 letters of the alphabet unless mom and dad checked out mentally years ago.

    And JAB thanks for the snarky retort. I can always count on you to be completely dismissive of any post with which you disagree. It is one of the main reasons that I rarely visit this website anymore.

    I am not advocating universal pre-k. I think a better use of the money might be all day kindergarten. These kids have to get up to speed somehow. And their parents sure as hell aren’t doing it.

    And the kids I’m referring to weren’t “broken” by day care. Day care didn’t create this problem Idiotic, brainless, spineless parents did.

    I can say “parents must take responsibility” until I’m blue in the face. It won’t change a thing. We must deal with reality. Parents AREN’T taking responsibility. And no amount of screaming at them or advising them will change that.

    So, then what do we do? Something MUST be done. Sticking our heads in the sand certainly won’t fix it. Maybe all day kindergarten will give these kids a chance. I really don’t know.

  16. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Anon: Snarky is the eye of the beholder.

    Something if it is wrong thing is a bad thing to do. If something for the middle class, non-daycare, two-parented demon seed is government schools for babies then imagination is as dead as good analysis and solutions.

    Like the government can discern which babies need to go to schools and which don’t.

    Like government will do a better job than the lousy parents – with 3 year olds.

    It isn’t the function of government to raise babies.

  17. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Jim W., You asked, “How do you know that reducing the drop out rate to zero would yield a lousy return on taxpayer investment?”

    Here’s the basis for my assertion: Based on the data that Busser provided in her article, Virginia taxpayers spend $90 million a year on kids who repeat grades in school. But the universal pre-K program would cost $300 million. Busser cited no other savings.

    You make a valid point, that the cost of having kids repeat grades doesn’t end with the school system. A lot of the repeaters end up dropping out of school, become derelicts, criminals, whatever — at considerable cost to society. I think that’s worth considering. But Busser doesn’t make that point. I would like to see some numbers, even very rough ones. Perhaps JLARC could look into it.

    One more point, though, that you should consider. The state already supports pre-k programs for “at risk” kids. These kids are the most likely to drop out and become problems as adults. Will expanding pre-k to all socio-economic strata significantly change adult outcomes? Again, I would like to see the data.

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “it isn’t the function of government to raise babies.”

    If people have “babies” and they don’t raise them then what happens?

    who becomes responsible for that helpless purpose though no fault of their own born to bad circumstances?

    I think this is a fundamental question.

    Would you abandon all kids who have no parents or bad parents? What would you do with them?

    Would you include the elderly, the sick and those others not able to care for themselves as NOT the function of government either?

    .. and what do you think “government” is or is not?

    How would you go about convincing the rest of us that your statement has merit?

    I KNOW that I don’t have all the answers but I do try to not run away from things that are real that demand responses beyond whatcan be perceived as across as simple-minded ideologies.

  19. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    How many programs would be duplicated? My son had speech problems when he was a toddler — he didn’t talk. We worked with Fairfax County to develop a plan to address his problem. Interestingly, we discovered that both Fairfax County and Fairfax County Public Schools had competing programs for pre-school children with speech and other problems.

    I think that it makes sense for Fairfax County to identify preschool children with these types of problems and to address them. While insurance pays for some of these costs, a portion will need to come from taxes. But why have two sets of administrators? I asked the school board representative why the duplication. She wasn’t even aware of this. The duplication continues even today. We could probably provide more services to children at the same level of cost if we consolidated programs.

    Jobs for the “professional caring class” are more important than either the children or the taxpayers. There is a reason why most people with MAs and PhDs vote for Democrats. Guess where they are employed?

  20. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Exactly TMT. This kind of thing is NOT usually found in profit-making ventures especially one’s that are in a competitive environment. There is simply no incentive for schools to NOT waste money. All they really have an existing budget allocation .. and the ability to spend it.

    and I think you are on-target also with the jobs issue – where DO folks with higher degrees find employment if the private sector can’t use them? (I do acknowledge the need and contributions of such folks but I also question why we have so many).

    and I dunno about Fairfax but in Spotsylvania, more than 65% of our property taxes go towards education and all attempts to hold them more accountable for such things as duplication, redundancy, and performance standards have resulted in the School Board demagoguing the issues with the public.

    Their basic approach is that WHATEVER they present as a budget is… sacrosanct and totally needs-based and all questions with respect to it – are overt threats to “fully-funding” “our kids needs”.

  21. Anonymous Avatar

    Oh for gods sake JAB –

    How many times do I have to say I DO NOT ADVOCATE UNIVERSAL PRE-K??????????

    I’ve said it again & again — and yet for some reason the ONLY thing you are capable of addressing is Pre-K. I’m not even talking about Pre-K. So sorry you are incapable of having a discussion on what I actually posted instead of what you THINK I posted.

    There ya’ go – snarky right back at ya’.

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