Is Pre-K the Best Place to Invest our Education Dollars?

“The most important and precious resource in the world today is not oil. It’s not water. It’s brainpower,” Gov. Timothy M. Kaine told business leaders in Harrisonburg yesterday as he stumped Western Virginia in support of his pre-K expansion initiative. “Strategies that increase our brainpower are going to keep us on top.” (See the Daily News Record story here.)

I totally and whole-heartedly concur. But there our agreement stops.

It does not necessarily follow from Kaine’s initial premise that the most cost-efficient way of increasing “brainpower” among Virginia’s youth is to spend an additional $75 million to expand the scope of existing Virginia’s pre-K programs, which currently cost $50 million already.

Why not invest in kindergarten? Municipalities in Northern Virginia, in Virginia’s educational vanguard, are dedicating their extra resources to expanding kindergarten, not pre-K. (See “Forget Full-Time Pre-K, How about Full-Time Kindergarten?“) What do they know that the Governor does not?

Why not invest in middle school? For purposes of argument, I will accept Gov. Kaine’s assertions that pre-K improves pupil performance in the early grades. But Virginia national standardized tests show Virginia students performing comparatively well in elementary school. The problems in the Virginia educational system manifest themselves in middle school, where performance slides markedly. Why not target middle school with extra resources instead?

Even that point begs a number of larger questions. Why does Gov. Kaine find it necessary to raise $75 million in new revenue for his initiative? With state aid to public education in Virginia amounting to $6.7 billion in Fiscal 2008, he can’t carve out $75 million? Isn’t it time we take a look at the rigid funding allocation formulas that deprive governors of any flexibility in educational spending?

Speaking of the subject of rigid, centralized educational bureaucracy in Richmond, why does Virginia permit so little experimentation within its school system? To raise the questions posed earlier by Norm Leahy, why don’t we have more charter schools? Why can’t we give parents a wider array of choices, via vouchers, of where to send their children to school?

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5 responses to “Is Pre-K the Best Place to Invest our Education Dollars?”

  1. I just finished reading Freakonomics, which uses economic analysis to show little overall effect on later test scores from Head Start in the US. The authors point to underpaid, undereducated teachers as the possible culprit. Would universal pre-k in Virginia be substantively different from Head Start?
    According to Freakonomics, more important factors are educated parents, parents with higher socioeconomic status, mothers starting to have children after thirty, healthy birthweight (not low), parents who speak English in the home, children raised by their biological parents (adopted children tend to inherit a lower IQ than their adoptive parents, but are more likely to go to college, earn more at work, and wait until after their teens to marry than comparable children who were not adopted), parental involvement in the PTA, and having many books in the home.
    Authors Levitt and Dubner draw the conclusion that “it isn’t so much what you do as a parent; it’s who you are.”
    In other words, it’s the parents stupid. The data suggests that “by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late.”
    So…how about that $75 million?

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Lyle, Chris Braunlich, who is affiliated with the Jefferson Institute and a candidate for Fairfax County school board, cites numerous studies that reach the same conclusions as Freakonomics.

    The governor cites his experts, who say the programs have a high social ROI, the opponents cite their studies. You have dueling studies. Who’s a person to believe?

    That’s why I argued, *if* we go with the governor’s plan (and I’m not endorsing it when I say that), it’s critically important to set up a system for carefully measuring and tracking the results so that we know, some 10 or 15 years later whether the program is working as advertised.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    But if the main predictor of success is the parents (and that’s true) and if the parents are setting their children up for failure (which many are), then is the answer do nothing? Just accept it and hope we will still need people to punch the cash register at McDonald’s? (Which we won’t — that process will soon be automated like the self-checkout lines at Lowe’s.)

    I have no problem with bringing kids into the school system at age 4. And it shouldn’t cost one extra dime, because you make an additional change on the other end and eliminate the most useless year of school — the current senior year in high school. The edcuational establishment doesn’t want to hear this, because they want the new jobs, buildings, expense, etc. But just move the whole process forward a year. Nobody is talking about that.

  4. I absolutely agree that metrics are essential. I sat down with an Education School Masters program dropout friend of mine today to get a better handle on this issue. She is hardly a leading expert, but she is much better acquainted with the subject than I. Her take surprised me. She immediately agreed that pre-k offers no educational benefit, and so the lack of impact on test scores is unsurprising. The purpose rather is as you note, a social benefit, not the claimed education benefits that Kaine is pushing.
    In her view, Pre-K gives underprivileged children tools to better adapt in society: avoiding violence, sharing, respecting authority, learning self-control. This has nothing to do with test scores in school, but with staying in school, getting along in the workplace, and staying out of trouble.
    This makes more sense to me, and I can see a potential social return on investment from this strategy, but I would love it if Kaine would be clear that this is more about helping at-risk children make better choices.
    With that as a clear policy goal, we can usefully measure success at intended outcomes, such as graduation rates, employment and income numbers, as well as arrest rates.
    Platitudes about brain power are just going to send us in the wrong direction.

    Thank you for raising this issue, I knew next to nothing about it.


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    “it’s critically important to set up a system for carefully measuring and tracking the results “

    For every government dollar we spend. Otherwise we have no sure way to improve.

    Norm and Lyle are right on with this. The Governor erred by not stating the goals clearly and resorting to polispeak.

    I read Freakonomics and was impressed, although I thought it was long on association and short on causality. The single best indicator of success in college is the parents income. Books in the home is a close second, but neither of those is the cause of success.


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