Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced during her “State of the State” address that she wants to expand taxpayer-funded pre-K to all of Michigan’s four-year-olds and is proposing more than $250 million “toward the goal” of universal pre-K. But preschool for every child would be costly, primarily benefit higher-income families, is unlikely to result in educational gains and will harm lower-income Michigan families.
Michigan already pays for preschool for lower-income families. The Great Start Readiness Program covers the full cost for families earning under $75,000 per year. This costs taxpayers nearly $400 million. It’s unclear how many new four-year-olds would sign up for universal preschool and how much higher that would drive the cost of pre-K, but it would likely rise substantially.
Nearly 60% of Michigan families are in households earning $75,000 per year or less. In other words, expanding preschool to everyone means subsidizing the costs for the top 40% of households. Yes — taxpayers would be picking up the tab of preschool for millionaire families.
So what will happen when the number of families with access to “free” preschool increases enormously? It means more higher-income kids flooding into the current system. More demand into a system with an already limited supply means fewer spots and higher costs. Lower-income families already have a tough time finding preschools; this makes that problem worse.
It’s easy to see how this program benefits higher-income families. They get their preschool costs now paid for by taxpayers rather than themselves. But how does this new program help lower-income families?
The main argument seems to be that taxpayer-funded preschool makes things easier for families and will lead to better education results. Richer families will certainly find it easier to have the government picking up their pre-K bill, but the evidence for increased learning is skimpy. There are studies that show positive educational results from early education programs, but they tend to be small, extremely expensive and aimed at low-income or otherwise challenged kids.
The problem is that some education researchers and policy makers assume these results can be scaled up universally. That’s very unlikely. The results of Head Start — the long-running federal program for early childhood education — are not good.
Other studies about Head Start are more positive, but an ongoing study of Tennessee’s statewide preschool program for low-income kids from Vanderbilt University — “the nation’s only thorough, ongoing investigation into the impacts of a statewide pre-K program for economically disadvantaged children using a random sample” —is showing poor results.
And those are studies of programs aimed at low-income families. It is very unlikely that the government paying for four-year-olds from higher-income households to go to preschool will result in better educational results. Why would it? These tend to be families that can already afford preschool or another type of childcare, or which have a highly educated parent staying home with them.
Whitmer calls universal preschool part of her “Lowering MI Costs plan,” but it doesn’t lower costs. It shifts the cost of preschool to taxpayers and, through simple supply and demand, raises the cost of pre-K across Michigan. It makes things harder for low-income families. And it is unlikely to lead to better education results.
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