Head Start a False Start

Follow the research to help low-income students

With a push from Gov. Snyder, the business community, public employee unions and most of the significant lobbying groups in the state, both branches of the Legislature have proposed budgets that significantly expand spending on early childhood education.

Unfortunately, this spending will likely not result in any significantly improved educational outcomes. There is a lot of research on the effects of preschool, and a fierce debate over whether spending more money on schools for young children will result in improved performance.

Something of a consensus has evolved around small, tightly-controlled educational environments for low-income, low-skilled students, with the studies on Ypsilanti’s Perry Preschool and North Carolina’s Abecedarian Intervention Project often cited. At the same time, even researchers on the left, who favor more spending on preschool in general, acknowledge that increasing funding for children of middle-class and wealthier families is ineffective.

The problem with the plans put forth in the Legislature is that, even if one accepts that preschool spending is worth the cost, the system still incentivizes spending the money in the wrong ways.

The House and Senate budgets call for more money for Great Start, which funds preschool for 4-year-olds in the state. But the bulk of the research on large, wide-ranging programs like Great Start and the national Head Start show that the results are dubious at best.

The best research done on Head Start, which includes several studies commissioned by the federal government, showed "little statistical effect" of the program — at best, preschool advantages wore off by fourth grade.

And as Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation, noted: The states which fund universal preschool have not seen a payoff. 

[T]he latest evidence from Oklahoma and Georgia, two states that implemented universal pre-K in the 1990s, only confirms this.

Oklahoma's high-school graduation rates have dropped since it embraced UPK and Georgia's remain stagnant. The average reading score of Oklahoma's fourth graders on the NAEP — the national report card — dropped four points between 1998 and 2011.

Georgia just reached the national average. The NAEP reading gap between black and white children in Oklahoma was 22 points in 1992. In 2011? The same. Georgia had a 28-point spread in 1992. In 2011? Twenty-three points.

As my colleague, director of education policy, Michael Van Beek has noted: If the Legislature truly followed the research, they would create more Perry preschools; not more Head Starts.

And there is more than enough money already being spent on early childhood education to do that.