Increasing access to preschool could be the most important federal investment to make in education right now — or not. Unfortunately, despite what President Obama would have the public believe, the evidence is complicated and somewhat mixed.
In several recent speeches, the president has sketched out a plan to provide supplemental funding to states that offer a free year of pre-kindergarten for low- and moderate-income families. In doing so, though, he has echoed some of the most repeated but misleading claims made about preschool. "Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on," Obama said. And in states such as Georgia and Oklahoma, which offer nearly universal preschool, students are "also more likely to grow up reading and doing math at grade level, graduating from high school, holding a job, even forming more stable families."
The $7 savings and long-term benefits were found in studies of multiyear, comprehensive — and steeply expensive — programs that also provided parent training and extensive social services. That's far different from what Obama has proposed. As for universal preschool, some research has shown that although children start kindergarten far better prepared, the advantages often fade around third grade. Meanwhile, the preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma haven't been around long enough to measure the impact on jobs or families.