universal pre-k

In June, published a commentary by Greg Forster, a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice, that criticized Oklahoma’s universal pre-kindergarten (pre-k) program. It was excerpted from an Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs post from June 15. The first half of the editorial was rather wonky, but it eventually concluded, “Policymakers shouldn’t spend big money expanding pre-K when the benefits are so uncertain. They should also take pre-K off Oklahoma’s automatic-funding conveyor belt.”

On the other hand, Forster also hinted at an ideological message when recommending:

Rather than grow the bureaucratic state and have government employees incrementally replace the role of parents in the lives of children, another approach is to strengthen the social capital of impoverished households in ways that strengthen parents rather than replacing them.

Still, there are problems with the analyses of Forster and his prime source, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute, but I’m confident that Oklahoma’s early education experts will respond to them. (Oklahoma readers should be aware that Forster is criticizing universal pre-K as opposed to targeted programs.) For the record, however, the latest, state-of-the-art analysis of Tulsa’s pre-k, by William T. Gormley, Jr., Deborah Phillips and Sara Anderson, found:

The positive effects of Tulsa’s early childhood education program on standardized test scores diminish over time, but preK alumni continue to do better than other students in math. PreK alumni also excel, relatively speaking, in honors course enrollment and grade retention.

Some groups, such as males and Hispanics, showed greater gains that seem to be attributable to pre-k, and chronic absenteeism is reduced. Moreover, these documented benefits correlate with better educational outcomes, lower incarceration rates and other long-term, real-life outcomes.

I followed Whitehurst’s and Forster’s links and reviewed their methodologies to see where these pre-k opponents were coming from and to, perhaps, assist policymakers in becoming educated consumers of the research.

Whitehurst tends to miss the real-world point

Anyone familiar with Whitehurst’s work will not be surprised by how deeply he gets into the academic weeds. I’d be open to a debate over the efficacy of universal pre-k, but Whitehurst seems to be focused more on defeating academic opponents than providing research that policymakers can understand and incorporate into decision-making.

My reading of Whitehurst’s criticism of universal pre-k is consistent with my take on his other analyses: He’s very precise in fighting academic battles with other scholars, but, when discussing real-world policy issues, he tends to miss the point.

Forster blames special interests, cites himself

Forster has the opposite problem, and it becomes clear when reading his full paper on Oklahoma pre-k. In it, Forster acknowledges that, since 1998, Oklahoma has been a leader in pre-k:

Oklahoma isn’t quite the standout it used to be, but that’s largely because some other states have emulated Oklahoma’s embrace of expansive pre-K programs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 48.5% of Oklahoma’s 3- and 4-year-old children are enrolled in school, placing Oklahoma 18th in the nation; the national average is 47.6%.

Forster then seems to tip his hand when protesting, “Rounding up families that haven’t chosen to be enrolled would have to cost substantially more per student,” which then leads to a complaint about pre-k advocates, such as State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. In May 2016, Hofmeister stated,

While we recognize that a nurturing home is every child’s first classroom, in a state with high poverty, access to early childhood education is crucial to shaping the future trajectory of all learners.

Forster, who used the questionable phrase “rounding up families” for pre-k, cites Hofmeister’s words as evidence of “… paternalism toward households of low socioeconomic standing.” He then criticized a Tulsa reporter who mentioned child-care costs that are a burden on poor families. Such a statement, he wrote, “… makes it very clear that for her the purpose of pre-K is not educational, but paternalistic government care for (i.e., control of) poor households.”

Forster also challenges the integrity of others who disagree with him. He states that educators want universal pre-k because it “… enriches education special interests such as teacher and staff unions.”

That assumption raises a question about Forster’s inaccurate statement that school choice has “… a much more solid track record in the empirical evidence.” Where in the world could he find evidence for such a wild claim? The answer is in his footnotes: “[8] See Greg Forster, ‘A Win-Win Solution,’ fourth edition, EdChoice, 2017.”

Oklahoma should build on great start in pre-k

While the excerpt in The Oklahoman hinted at a bigger agenda, the original, longer paper spells out five recommendations, two of which include:

  • Consider whether pre-K is well served by regulations on class size and teacher qualifications that directly serve education special interests, but whose educational value is unclear.
  • Consider introducing school choice design in existing pre-K programs.

Better ideas would come from the research of Gormley, Phillips and Anderson on Tulsa’s pre-k. During the years they studied, preschools, Head Start and public schools were competing for teachers. Now, the talent shortage is even worse. Oklahoma should invest much more in recruiting and training teachers.

Also, let’s not assume that when pre-school gains are lost during kids’ public school years that that is the fault of early education. Perhaps elementary educators should learn from their pre-k colleagues, but that is not the point of this post. The point is that Oklahoma has made a great start in pre-k, and we should build on it. The state’s 3- and 4-year-olds should be excluded from ideological, political fights.