Government Preschools Don’t Work. So Why Are We Still Funding Them?


The evidence showing the decided lack of effectiveness of government preschool continues to mount.

Numerous policy analysts have already begun to discuss this problem, including the Heartland Institute’s Joy Pullmann, the American Principles Project’s Jane Robbins, the Cato Institute’s David ArmorLindsey Burke and Salim Furth of the Heritage Foundation, and my own compilation as highlighted at The Federalist. Even the more moderate, corporately-aligned American Enterprise Institute has stated, “Our current knowledge is insufficient to justify a large expansion of pre-K as the best path forward.”

What is even more remarkable is the number of similar admissions from university-based early childhood scholars, who are proponents of and make their livings by studying these programs. Although they are generally still very supportive of the concept of government pre-K, these experts have slowly been forced to admit that, despite decades of study, there still really is no or very little evidence of effectiveness beyond the actual preschool year.

In a just-released white paper titled “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,” many major early childhood experts issued a consensus statement. One of the tenets of that statement admitted something I and others have been saying for a very long time:

Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled-up pre-k programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-k-induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs. [Emphasis added]

The authors did not choose to list or discuss any of the negative effects in their paper, but some of the many concerning outcomes for pre-K and childcare attendees compared to those raised at home include:

  • Decreased reading achievement by fourth grade (Tennessee, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Georgia)
  • “Lower teacher assessment in kindergarten of Head Start children’s math ability [3-year-olds].”
  • “Preschool participants were more likely to score higher on factors of aggression and disobedience as reported by their teachers.” (National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development)
  • “First grade teachers rated the TN‐ VPK children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school.”

Other important admissions buried in that report include:

  • “…we are keenly aware that the research methods that have been deployed to understand pre-k impacts are not yet as strong as we would like and that our conclusions have yet to stand the test of time.”
  • “The challenges of scale-up are illustrated by the national Head Start program, for which consistently strong and enduring impacts have been elusive.”

One issue raised in this paper that is extremely concerning to conservative policy analysts and parents is the idea of standardizing curriculum and aligning it to elementary curriculum, which in most states would mean aligning to the Common Core standards:

With respect to curriculum, obvious remedies are to work on aligning early grade curricula with pre-k curricula…

This is very odd, given that more than 500 early childhood experts signed a statement opposing the Common Core due to developmental inappropriateness. Additionally, we have written extensively about invasive preschool curriculum and the strong potential for indoctrination of standards being cemented into place under the National Head Start standards. These standards and their requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act preschool development grants are in essence creating a “Baby Common Core” system of controversial standards and assessments. Regardless of a parent’s point of view, discussing gender identity or inculcating social emotional traits should be left to families and religious institutions.

Assessment of young children and data collection are other important areas that this paper did not discuss, but which are of grave concern to parents. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is working hard to globally expand early childhood assessment. This is opposed by an international coalition of early childhood experts and educators, and by multiple policy analysts. The Pew Charitable Trust is advocating for as much individual family-level data as possible.

Sadly, foundations pushing Common Core, pre-K and data mining — like Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future (FFF) — are advocating for legislation containing many of these dangerous elements. FFF has authored and is promoting such a bill in the Florida legislature. SB 468/HB 757, if enacted, would commit $10 million to training teachers in pre-K through grade 5 to teach reading aligned to the state (Common Core) standards. It would also expand pre-K assessments that can falsely label children as deficient or “at risk” readers when they are merely developing at different rates, and it would impose an ID number on four-year-old children as part of the state and federal womb-to-tomb databases.

Poverty, often blamed for the achievement gap and the excuse for Head Start and many other preschool programs, is actually a proxy-measure for single parenthood. Review of data by Dr. William Jeynes from more than 20,000 African-American and Hispanic high school students in the National Educational Longitudinal Survey shows the spectacular result that two-parent families and religious observance actually erases the achievement gap. This is something that more than $2 trillion dollars and 50 years of oppressive, unconstitutional federal interference have never come close to achieving.

Policymakers need to understand that even 50 more years of experimentation and privacy-violating research on our youngest, most vulnerable citizens will not show long-term effectiveness of government-run preschool. State and federally controlled pre-K — with its high costs, indoctrinating standards, and violations of privacy and parental autonomy — will never close the achievement gap.

Congress and states must stop subsidizing unwed parenthood and allow the return to locally controlled preschool and childcare, while only monitoring health and safety issues. They must also understand that parents, not bureaucrats, instinctively understand what is best for their children and reject the Nanny State.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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