Pre-K program unnecessary

Commentary — By on August 16, 2010 at 9:19 am

Elizabeth Cook, research associate at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, explains the perils of the state pre-Kindergarten program in Monday’s Tennessean.

by Elizabeth Cook

As sum­mer comes to an end, stu­dents across Ten­nessee are head­ing off to their first day of school. This year, many par­ents will be send­ing their chil­dren to pre-kindergarten for the first time, as Gov. Phil Bre­desen announced on Aug. 3 that preschool pro­grams are now avail­able — on a vol­un­tary basis — in all of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

Soon, this may also be the case nationally.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has pledged $10 bil­lion toward early child­hood edu­ca­tion. Many cit­i­zens con­sider uni­ver­sal pre-K a great accom­plish­ment, but Amer­i­cans should not be so quick to embrace the idea. Pre-K sim­ply does not live up to its hype and may even pro­duce harm­ful results.

This is not to argue against the well-being of Amer­i­can chil­dren, nor is it an argu­ment against pub­lic edu­ca­tion — the value of which is undeniable.

It is easy to see why, at first glance, many Amer­i­cans judge pre-K pro­grams to be wholly ben­e­fi­cial. How­ever, uni­ver­sal, insti­tu­tion­al­ized pre-K pro­grams are not the solu­tion they claim to be.

A 2010 report on Tennessee’s pre-K pro­gram, recently released by the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Edu­ca­tion Account­abil­ity, rein­forced pre­vi­ous years’ con­clu­sions: Pre-K has no long-lasting effects on stu­dent aca­d­e­mic performance.

Although pre-K seems to lead to some pos­i­tive effects on stu­dent per­for­mance in kinder­garten and first grade, this occurs, to quote the study, “pri­mar­ily among eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged students.” Fur­ther­more, “by sec­ond grade, the dif­fer­ence between pre-K stu­dents and a rea­son­ably com­pa­ra­ble group of non-pre-K stu­dents is negligible.”

This means that after a few years of school­ing, there are no iden­ti­fi­able dif­fer­ences in aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance between stu­dents who did and did not attend pre-K. So while some argue that pre-K pro­grams offer long-term ben­e­fits to soci­ety, in real­ity the pro­gram does not offer chil­dren any sig­nif­i­cant advantage.

Not only is the pro­gram a waste of tax­payer funds, pre-K may neg­a­tively affect chil­dren who enroll. For exam­ple, a 2007 study by the National Insti­tute of Child Health and Human Devel­op­ment con­cluded that chil­dren who attended pre-K were more likely than chil­dren who did not to engage in bul­ly­ing and aggres­sion through the sixth grade. Also, will pre-K soon become manda­tory, like kindergarten?

Although atten­dance is not cur­rently oblig­a­tory, if past prece­dent tells us any­thing, it may very well soon be. As par­ents feel social pres­sure to enroll their chil­dren in these pro­grams rather than keep them at home, fam­i­lies lose the oppor­tu­nity to impart their cul­tural iden­ti­ties, val­ues and morals on their chil­dren, which could have very real consequences.

In addi­tion, tax­pay­ers, already shelling out more than $83 mil­lion a year on pre-K, will be on the hook for even more funding.

Edu­ca­tion reform should con­cen­trate on rem­e­dy­ing our nation’s fail­ing K-12 pub­lic school sys­tem, rather than expand­ing it by adding pre-K pro­grams. Uni­ver­sal pre-K merely bur­dens this already-stressed system.

Spend­ing bil­lions of tax­payer dol­lars to pro­vide stu­dents with one addi­tional year of school­ing before dump­ing them into fail­ing schools does no good at all.

Eliz­a­beth Cook is a research asso­ciate at the Ten­nessee Cen­ter for Pol­icy Research, an inde­pen­dent, non­profit and non­par­ti­san research organization.

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