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August 21, 2007

Three cheers for universal pre-K

By Kathy G.

Max reports the cheering news that the state of Virginia is seriously considering a proposal for universal pre-K.

Of all the social programs the U.S. could possibly institute, universal pre-K is perhaps the most important. It is that rare initiative that meets the gold standard of public policy by simultaneously fulfilling the goals of equity and efficiency. Equity, because preschool and other early education programs have a lasting, powerful and well-documented positive impact on the outcomes of poor children. And efficiency, because it is extremely cost efficient. Few if any government investments produce a higher rate of return.

No one has been more instrumental in establishing the social science case for early childhood education than the economist James Heckman. Heckman is a quant god and he won his Nobel for his econometric work. (Statistics nerds know him for the “Heckman two-step,” an econometric technique that controls for selection bias. Though whenever I hear “Heckman two-step” weird images of Fred Astaire pop up in my head. Anyway . . .).

Heckman is a University of Chicago economist in every sense of the word – a very conservative dude. But he’s done phenomenal work showing that investment in children pays off in very substantial ways. As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year (subscription only), “There are many reasons why investing in disadvantaged young children has a high economic return. Early interventions for disadvantaged children promote schooling, raise the quality of the work force, enhance the productivity of schools, and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency. They raise earnings and promote social attachment. Focusing solely on earnings gains, returns to dollars invested are as high as 15% to 17%.”

If you want to immerse yourself in the wonky details of Heckman’s research, this overview is an excellent place to start. It gives you the economic theory on human capital and skill formation, and also provides the empirical results from a variety of early and not-so-early childhood intervention programs, giving you the impact on the kids themselves as well as the estimated costs and benefits to society. I'd post some of the tables and charts but I still haven't figured out how to do it in Typepad yet. The one on page 122 is my favorite.

Besides the fact that it helps children and is a wise social investment, to me, an added bonus of universal pre-K is that it could be a means of getting universal child care in through the back door. The idea being, you start by covering 4-year olds and gradually work your way down until you’ve got the 1- and 2-year olds. I consider universal child care to be the most important of the missing pieces of the unfinished business of the feminist movement.

I’m actually optimistic about the possibility of instituting a national pre-K program in this country. Liberals, of course, are already big fans of the idea. But I also think we can get through to the market-oriented conservatives by making the economic, return-on-investment argument to them. I’m probably the only person who remembers this, but Al Gore proposed a universal pre-K program when he ran for president in 2000. I always thought it was the best thing he did in that campaign.

And yeah, like Max says, fer chrissakes Virginia’s pre-K plan should be universal, not means-tested. As he points out, among other things, a means test would limit the efficiency of the program and basically amounts to “taxing children according to the incomes of parents they have not chosen.”

I will never understand these neo-liberal wankers and their infatuation with means tests, private-public partnerships, market-based solutions, yadda yadda yadda. What don’t they get about the power, justice, political durability, and elegant simplicity of free, universal government programs? It reminds me of this great quote by Nick Reville (via Chris Hayes): “If libraries didn’t already exist, there’d be no way they could ever come into existence now. Can you imagine telling the publishing industry that the government was going to pay to set up buildings where they gave away their product for free?”

August 21, 2007 in Education | Permalink

Comments

You wouldn't believe how difficult it is to find quality day care. Universal pre-K would not only help the kids, lots more adult women could look for work. Its a huge deal. My wife isn't going to work for the next year, even though she both wants to and would be able to find work in her field (Graphic Design) because day care where you actually learn something is so hard to find. As a result, its both extremely expensive (Joke: say hi to my kids - summer home and porshe) and extremely inflexible.

Plus "If libraries didn’t already exist, there’d be no way they could ever come into existence now. Can you imagine telling the publishing industry that the government was going to pay to set up buildings where they gave away their product for free?”

lol

Posted by: mickslam | Aug 21, 2007 1:22:45 PM

Kathy G,

I have enjoyed your tenure as a guest-blogger so far, and am proud to have been (I think) the first to call for you to fill said role. However, I think you're being fairly naive with this:

But I also think we can get through to the market-oriented conservatives by making the economic, return-on-investment argument to them.

If the last 7 years have taught us nothing else, it should be that there really is no such thing as a "market-oriented conservative". There are people who use the language of market-orientation to call for government action to bring about their desired outcomes, and there are free-marketeer libertarians, who make up a small portion of the electorate, and an essentially nonexistent portion of the political elite.

For the second group, you are at best going to be able to achieve a tie, since you are fighting the counteracting impulses between increased economic returns and the instinct that the government can't do anything right.

For the first, you are in a lose-lose, as you are fighting for the right to let more women not have to stay home with their children, and you are promoting a program which would have an especially salutary effect on poor, single women with children, which will infuriate the 'responsibility' conservatives who, actual tenets of Christianity aside, are generally only interested in punishing this demographic for the very fact of their existence.

That said, I have enjoyed reading you so far, keep up the good work!

Posted by: David S | Aug 21, 2007 1:31:18 PM

You're way too cynical, David S. There are plenty of conservatives who are responsive to market arguments, and who want to help single and other mothers work. Remember welfare reform? That was a huge push for mothers to work, and was well supported by conservatives. S-CHIP was and is cosponsored by Orrin Hatch and has significant conservative backing.

Kathy, I think Max's complaints about the WaPo editorial and Kaine's means-testing are off-base. The editorial makes it clear that Kaine is doing this for practical reasons: it costs money up front for this program, and Virginians aren't all that friendly to spending money. The goal remains universal pre-K, but arrived at in steps according to means. I see nothing in Max's complaints that deal with the realities Kaine is dealing with, and that the editorial is based on, except this throw-away at the end that pretty well undoes the foundation for his complaints:

Political realities may force Virginia's governor to opt for means-testing rather than universality, but a liberal newspaper would be expected to raise consciousness above prevailing prejudices.

Why? The editorial is about practical reality in Virginia, and acknowledges the advantages of a universal program.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 21, 2007 2:12:46 PM

I'm torn on this issue. I think preschool is a great thing. My son was special needs and the early intervention he got in preschool (which was free because he qualified as special needs) made a huge difference.

My concern, though, is that I worry that universal preschool will lead to making it a rigorous academic venture. I'm thinking of the pattern set by universal kindergarten kindergarten. Now that all children attend kindergarten, the school systems have ramped up the curriculum so that it's more like first grade was 20 years ago. And first grade is, of course, more difficult because they can count on that preparation. Now, the preferred method is all-day kindergarten. I just have this fear that in 20 years, we'll be debating whether it is appropriate for 4-year-olds to have homework.

Posted by: Magenta | Aug 21, 2007 2:29:05 PM

Thank you all for your comments (and especially thanks for the kind words, David S!).

There's one point I want to elaborate and which I should have made clear in my original post. Heckman definitely supports public spending on early intervention and childhood education programs, but I'm certain he wouldn't advocate for the free, public, universal scheme I'm arguing for. He would probably urge a market-based approach involving vouchers, means-testing, and the like. I think that kind of scheme would be unnecessarily complicated and would have results that ultimately would be less effective.

Perhaps I'll post about this again and make this point clear.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Aug 21, 2007 3:03:11 PM

shameless institute plug alert.

Robert Lynch has written a great book for EPI on this.

It includes cost/benefit analysis of both targeted and universal programs, both at the federal and state level.

it's a bit less daunting than wading through Heckman's work, but, the empirical estimates are thoroughly well-grounded.

http://www.epi.org/content.cfm/book_enriching

Posted by: josh bivens | Aug 21, 2007 3:30:24 PM

I will never understand these neo-liberal wankers and their infatuation with means tests, private-public partnerships, market-based solutions, yadda yadda yadda. What don’t they get about the power, justice, political durability, and elegant simplicity of free, universal government programs?


But free government programs aren't free. They're paid for with taxes. Taxes harm society. They should only be used to pay for things that provide a benefit greater than the harm done by taxes.

Sometimes you can get a better deal if you spend a little money targeting your program, saving a lot by not providing the service to people who don't need it. Sometimes you can't tell, or it's to expensive to screen people, so it's universal or nothing.

In this case, I think pre-k is clearly worth the taxes, and is probably better as a universal system than a means-tested system since the means testing process is particularly onerous for the very people whose children our society most needs to help (overworked or incompetent parents).

P.S. How is Warren Buffet getting a social security check more "just" than using the money on something else (like expanding the EITC or shoring up Medicare, or even cutting regressive payroll taxes)?

Posted by: neo-Librul wanker | Aug 21, 2007 3:43:03 PM

Excuse the dumb question: what is "pre-K"?

Posted by: Dave Empey | Aug 21, 2007 4:26:49 PM

Yeah, I think you're overoptimistic about significant conservative buy-in, especially if you're pushing means-blindness and universality from the age of 1 so hard, because in that form it at least rhymes with "let's raise taxes so the government can raise everyone's kids the right way".

Posted by: Senescent | Aug 21, 2007 4:29:00 PM

"Focusing solely on earnings gains, returns to dollars invested are as high as 15% to 17%.”"

If you're focused on the returns to your investment, the Heckman piece argues AGAINST universal pre-K. The largest "gains" from Perry-Abecedarian are from a decline in the crime and time spent on welfare from the program participants. These gains are because the program participants are considered at-risk youth. If you make the program universal, most youth will not be at-risk. Therefore you will not get the same return from a decline in pregnancy, crime, etc.

Furthermore, the cost for Universal Pre-K along the lines of Perry-Abecedarian are extremely expensive. I'd guess somewhere in excess of $40B a year.

That said, I fully agree that earlier interventions are a key to develop individual human capital. These types of interventions are much more succesful than later efforts such as some job training programs. I think there should be some more pilot programs along the lines of Perry.

But universal pre-K is not going to generate the rate of return that you advertise.

Posted by: Hederman | Aug 21, 2007 4:34:39 PM

Pre-K = pre-kindergarten, i.e. schooling/child care starting before kingergarten.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 21, 2007 4:49:17 PM

hederman

it's true that the rate-of-return is smaller in universal than in targeted programs, but, even the universal ROR kills that of most other investments.

it's certainly higher than, say, the interest rate paid on government debt, so, these would be worth doing even if deficit-financed (which they certainly don't have to be).

Posted by: josh bivens | Aug 21, 2007 5:04:15 PM

You're way too cynical, David S.

You can be too cynical?

Posted by: Jason G. | Aug 21, 2007 6:50:56 PM

If everyone is going to school for at least two years before 1st grade, why don't we call the first year of school 1st grade and just have everyone graduate after the 14th?

("This one goes to 11!")

Posted by: Grumpy | Aug 21, 2007 6:58:32 PM

The other problem with means-testing is that programs that target the poor are always the first to be cut, as they lack powerful advocates. Make it universal, and you get the middle class on board, which makes the program much less vulnerable. Think Social Security and Medicare vs. AFDC.

Posted by: beckya57 | Aug 21, 2007 8:08:41 PM

I just have this fear that in 20 years, we'll be debating whether it is appropriate for 4-year-olds to have homework.

My son brought home things from preschool to work on with us, though it wasn't mandatory. During kindergarten he brought reading and writing assignments home (once again, with parental involvement). He probably could have gotten away with ignoring those, too. Of course, he and we spent all the time necessary. I'll leave it up to you if you want to call this "homework."

He's starting first grade now, and this time the stuff he does at home will actually be graded. And, yes, this is public school.

Posted by: idlemind | Aug 22, 2007 10:34:20 AM

Great post Kathy, though I had a problem with this part:

Besides the fact that it helps children and is a wise social investment, to me, an added bonus of universal pre-K is that it could be a means of getting universal child care in through the back door. The idea being, you start by covering 4-year olds and gradually work your way down until you’ve got the 1- and 2-year olds. I consider universal child care to be the most important of the missing pieces of the unfinished business of the feminist movement.

You're probably right, but that's the last argument I'd make to attract persuadable social conservatives (social liberals are on board from the start).

People are selfish, tell them what's in it for them-- money spent on early childhood education now means less crime in the future.
http://www.fightcrime.org/

Posted by: beowulf | Aug 22, 2007 12:49:54 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 11, 2007 7:32:50 AM

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