Obama Wants to Expand Preschool Programs, But Do We Really Need That?

Politics at Play 34

preschoolOne of President Obama's proposals in last night's State of the Union address must have made parents of toddlers sit up and listen (if they were still awake by then). Obama wants to expand preschool opportunities for four-year-olds. This would include providing high-quality preschool for all low-income and moderate-income families, and expanding programs for middle-income families. The proposal would also incentivize full-day kindergarten.

But at a time when budgets are already tight and we're cutting every government program that isn't working, should we expand preschool? Does preschool really "work" -- and what do we really expect preschool do to, anyway?

The most recent study of the Head Start program looks mixed at first glance. Kids in Head Start showed major gains in academics through second grade. But after that? Not so much. By then, as kids get older, many other factors can affect their education performance. Still, Head Start kids are more likely to finish high school and go to college than their other low-income peers. And the investment saves us money later on down the line on things like special education and grade repetition -- and incarceration!

What preschool does seem to do is get kids ready for kindergarten.

My son attended a public school Pre-K program with both middle-class and low-income kids, and the difference in these kids was HUGE. I mean, here was my son, raised by two parents with advanced degrees, read to since he was a baby, expected take school seriously, and able to adjust to a new setting.

And then there were the kids who were like fish out of water. Everything was unfamiliar: The classroom, books, paying attention, following a routine. They were on a steep learning curve. But thanks to the sweet patience of their teachers and an effective program they caught up with the rest of their peers. And that's what preschool is all about for some kids.

So is it worth it? And should we do more?

The federal government already spends $8 billion on Head Start programs. Meanwhile, states have been cutting preschool program budgets by an average of $700 per child. Times are tough, and I'm not sure where the money for this initiative is going to come from.

I think preschool programs help give kids a fighting chance, especially low-income kids. I'm not so sure about middle-income kids. I kind of feel like those kids are going to be more ready for kindergarten no matter what. But maybe that's overly optimistic. Middle-class families can better afford private preschool, but it's a major financial burden. Maybe what we really need to do is stick with at-risk kids and think about what's going to keep those strong Head Start gains going all the way through high school.

What do you think about Obama's proposal to expand preschool programs?

 

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