Education

The costs of universal pre-K are not worth the benefits

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It is no secret that the Mills administration and legislative Democrats are planning to launch a big push for a universal pre-K program this year.

Universal pre-K has been on progressives’ wishlist for a long time, and they just might have the votes in the legislature to make it a reality in Maine. In the next few months, you are likely to hear politicians talk about how universal pre-K is a way to help disadvantaged children catch up to their peers, reverse Maine’s sliding national K-12 education rankings, and deliver tangible societal benefits that will strengthen our workforce and economy for decades to come.

The rhetoric may be seducing, but it’ll bear little resemblance to the facts.

From a fiscal perspective, implementing a universal pre-K program in Maine would come at a significant cost to taxpayers. Maine already funds some pre-K programs through its state school funding formula, and recent federal grants have provided millions more in funding. But Maine’s current public pre-K programs overwhelmingly serve low-income students. We’re still a long way from a truly universal program.

Based on per child costs and the number of preschoolers in Maine not currently attending a publicly-funded program, the price tag for a state-financed universal program would approach $70 million per year — more than we spend on corrections or veterans. At that rate, it wouldn’t take long for the LePage administration’s budget surpluses to evaporate, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

Beyond their costs, the fact is that universal pre-K programs have a poor track record of success. Gold-standard studies of such programs (those that use randomized research methods to isolate the effects of pre-K from other variables that could influence a child’s performance) find that little to no long-term benefits in academic performance or labor market outcomes. An analysis of several high-quality studies of pre-K from around the country concluded:

“…although preschool programs evaluated by the most rigorous research designs show modest but statistically significant improvements during the preschool years, these gains fade as children move into the kindergarten and first grades. The fadeout might be more accurately described as “catch up,” because the cognitive growth that occurs for all children in the early elementary grades is far greater than the gains during the preschool years, so it may be that children who did not have preschool simply caught up with those who did.”

Analysts have also pointed out the wastefulness of universal programs that provide free services to every child, even those from well-off homes who show no signs of needing remedial preparation for kindergarten.

The original logic of helping disadvantaged children catch up may still be valid, because Head Start–type programs do show modest benefits during the preschool year. However, the proposal to expand preschool to everyone defeats the purpose of closing achievement gaps by giving disadvantaged children a “head start.”

If progressives want to help children in Maine succeed in school and lead productive lives as adults (and who doesn’t?), they should look to other policies. How about expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, a proven way to pull children out of poverty? Or perhaps cut taxes for Maine families, who face one of the heaviest tax burdens in the country, to let parents decide what’s best for their children.

If current indications are accurate, the universal pre-K proposal shaping up in Augusta will be an ineffective, feel-good boondoggle that will leave Maine taxpayers poorer and its children no better educated.

About Liam Sigaud

Liam Sigaud is a former policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. A native of Rockland, Maine, he holds a B.A. in Biology from the University of Maine at Augusta and has studied policy analysis and economics at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. He can be reached by email at liam.sigaud@maine.edu.

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