News Story

More Preschool Spending Not The Answer

Amount of funding on early childhood and K-12 education has not been shown to improve learning

It’s a new year, but we're hearing the same old calls for higher spending in state government.

While road funding has absorbed a lot of the political oxygen, a consensus is forming that the state needs to spend more money on K-12 education — including substantially more on early childhood schooling. But the facts don’t follow that logic.

The Center for Michigan, which has written nearly 60 articles on early childhood education in the past few years, has released a report they sum up as, “Message sent: Fix schools, send us the bill.” The paper has survey data that purports to show that Michiganders overwhelmingly want more money spent on early childhood education. It should be noted that The Center for Michigan released a “special report” calling for more preschool funding in 2011 (“SPECIAL REPORT: Don’t count out early education”) and 2010 (“SPECIAL REPORT: Where Bernero and Snyder stand on early education”) as well as articles calling for an increase back in 2007 and 2008.

“[O]ne key thing that citizens want is more early childhood education," said John Bebow, the Center’s executive director. "[Preschool] is a real game-changer in terms of getting kids off on the right foot.”

Founder and Chairman of the Center, Phil Power, added that, "Early childhood education offers a great return on investment."

The article cites more funding for early childhood education as a priority of Gov. Rick Snyder, House Speaker Jase Bolger, Michigan Superintendent of  Public Instruction Michael Flanagan and state Sen. Roger Kahn, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

This is unfortunate because research shows a different view of the payoff of more funding for early childhood education. For example:

  • 2010 Department of Health and Human Services study on the federal Head Start program noted that while the program had a “positive impact” through preschool, “advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole. Impacts at the end of kindergarten were scattered…” After first grade, there was little or no significant positive impacts for the students who went through Head Start compared to those who did not.
  • 2012 HHS study followed up on the study above and found that there were no effects for third grade students either. The report was only released last month even though it was concluded over a year ago, which raised some eyebrows. The study found that while Head Start had a positive impact on the preschool children attended, "there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade."
  • paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research said that, “The first randomized experimental study of Head Start, the National Head Start Impact Study (NHSIS), found impacts on academic outcomes of .15 to .3 standard deviations measured at the end of the program year, although the estimated impacts were no longer significant when measured at the end of kindergarten or first grade.”
  • 1998 study from the Department of Health and Human Services found that the program had “little meaningful impact.” As Douglas J. Besharov, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, and Douglas M. Call, a research associate at the University of Maryland, put it, “Even after spending six months in Head Start, 4-year-olds on average could identify only two more letters than children from similar backgrounds not in the program; 3-year-olds could identify one and a half more letters. More important, no gains at all were detected in more vital measures like early math learning, oral comprehension (very indicative of later reading comprehension), motivation to learn or ‘social competencies’ like the ability to interact with peers and teachers.”
  • 1969 study by the Westinghouse Learning Corp. and Ohio University was the first major evaluation of the program. It found that cognitive gains made by preschoolers did not last and that Head Start students performed no better than those outside the program from similar backgrounds.

These studies are important because Head Start is the main early childhood education program in the country and available to low-income families up to 130 percent of the poverty line. The year-round cost to keep a child in the program is about $22,600 per year compared to an average cost of $9,500 in a day care center.

Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, the federal government increased funding for Head Start by $100 million a few weeks ago.

Criticisms of the program span the political specturm: Liberal TIME Magazine columnist, Joe Klein, wrote a few years ago, “It is now 45 years later. We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program's effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.”

Melinda Wenner Moyer, a writer for the left-leaning website Slatenoted recently that, “If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool.” Moyer points out that most of the studies out there that support preschool education show that it “only benefits children from these disadvantaged families.” She concludes:

So what’s a type-A parent to do? If you’re providing your child with a stimulating environment at home — and if you’ve read this far, you probably are — don’t stress about preschool. Hell, skip the whole damn circus if you want. (My husband is going to quote me on this later.) Or apply, but if little Aiden doesn’t get into his (er, your) first choice, don’t fret. Instead, take to heart the blunt, reassuring words of social psychologist Richard Nisbett, co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan. When I asked him how important it is to send your child to the best preschool, he told me that as far as he knows (and he seems to know a lot), “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.”

The Center for Michigan report is a bit ironic: It measures wholesale changes that Michigan citizens want from their schools, while also calling for increased funding. But the state has increased, funding for public education — substantially.

From 1995 to 2005, the state increased spending on K-12 education by 40 percent, a billion dollars over inflation. And while there was a slight education funding cut two years ago, it was the first real cut to education spending in Michigan in decades. The per-student operating cost of Michigan's public schools nearly quadrupled from 1960 to 2007, from $2,991 in 1960 to $11,337 in 2007, as measured in 2007 dollars (see picture). At the same time, nationwide, funding for schools is triple what it was in 1970, going from $50,000 to $150,000 in cost to educate a student K-12, adjusted for inflation.

It’s easy to call for more money to solve a problem. But when will simply sending more money to public schools begin to pay off?

In the meantime, policymakers and citizens should focus on improving schools through competition with the substantial amount of money they already receive.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.