On the April ballot, Kansas Citians are being asked to vote on a three-eighth cent sales tax to fund a universal pre-K program. But the benefits being promised to Kansas City voters are not from the type of program Kansas Citians are being offered. Proponents may be promising voters a Lamborghini, but their car lot is filled with mopeds.
Supporters for the value of pre-K point to a single preschool program, the HighScope Perry program in Ypsilanti, Michigan that ran from 1958 to 1962. The participants had been tracked over 40 years and the resulting data provide much of the basis for what supporters claim is the benefit of pre-K.
The Mid America Regional Council (MARC), which will administer the Kansas City pre-K program if approved by voters, claims in its 2018 “Status of Children and Families” report that (page 45):
Research shows that every dollar invested in early childhood education saves up to $13 in future social costs, leading to lower crime rates, fewer adults on public assistance, fewer teen pregnancies, and a stronger, more prepared workforce.
Mayor Sly James’s pre-K Implementation Plan for pre-K similarly claims (page 44):
. . . the public benefits accrued over time from children who attended HighScope Perry Preschool program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at a rate of 13 to one.
These returns seem too good to be true. And they are. The 13-to-one return comes from a single study of the HighScope Perry plan published in 2005, which claimed:
For the general public, higher tax revenues, lower criminal justice system expenditures, and lower welfare payments easily outweigh program costs; they repay $12.90 for every $1 invested. However, program gains come mainly from reduced crime by males.
The HighScope Perry study was of 123 “low-income African-American children who were assessed to be at high risk of school failure.” Only 58 were randomly assigned “to a program group that received a high-quality preschool program at ages 3 and 4.” The high-quality program included:
- Two school years of preschool running October through May;
- A center-based program for 2.5 hours per day with “4 teachers for 20 to 25 children”;
- Home visiting for 1.5 hours per week; and
- Group meetings of parents.
Only 39 of the participants in this study were male (see footnote 3 here). In other words, Mayor James and MARC want voters to believe that a small-scale, intensive two-year education program conducted with 39 high-risk boys can be extrapolated to the more than 6,000 children in Kansas City.
Even other proponents of pre-K are more restrained in calculating possible returns. Economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman wrote in a 2017 research summary of that same HighScope Perry program (emphasis added):
Every dollar spent on high quality, birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children delivers a 13% per annum return on investment. These economically significant returns account for the welfare costs of taxation to finance the program and survive a battery of sensitivity analyses.
As I pointed out in a recent American Public Square panel discussion about pre-K in Kansas City, the program Kansas City voters are being asked to support is nothing like the HighScope Perry program Heckman analyzed. The plan being put before voters does not have anywhere near the 5 or 6 to 1 ratio of child to teacher, will not include home visits, will not be two years, and will not spend as much per child as HighScope Perry did.
A recent blog post discussed the unimpressive findings on pre-K programs such as Head Start that more closely resemble what Kansas Citians are being offered. But using HighScope Perry’s results to pitch pre-K for all in Kansas City is nothing short of a bait and switch.