Preschool: Silver Bullet?
Former St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl recently penned a letter to the St. Louis Business Journal about the benefits of investing in early childhood education. He wrote:
“The benefits read like a laundry list of personal responsibility: more employment success, higher earnings, better health, greater education attainment, lower chances of incarceration, reduced likelihood of dropping out of high school, fewer teen pregnancies, and on and on.
Early education is good for business as well. Pre-K graduates show up on time, ready for work and with a temperament essential for work place success. They also possess confidence, curiosity and a greater sense of purpose, all of which will help the private sector’s bottom line…”
In short, next time I’m running late, I’ll just tell my boss, “Sorry, I didn’t go to preschool.” That ought to get me off the hook.
Preschool supporters like Schoemehl have good intentions, but often make the mistake of talking about preschool as if it’s some kind of cure-all. That just isn’t the case. While it’s true that preschool can offer some benefits for low-income students, creating a quality program is difficult. When preschool programs are constructed, they usually import some of the worst problems of our public K-12 system.
In a recent study, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute performed an independent evaluation of the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program (TN-VPK). TN-VPK offers a full-day prekindergarten option for four-year-olds. The program focuses on the neediest children in the state.
Despite previous findings that showed that the Tennessee prekindergarten program was successful in producing improvements in academic skills by kindergarten, Vanderbilt found that there were no statistically significant differences between TN-VPK participants and nonparticipants by the end of first grade. Brookings Institution senior fellow Russ Whitehurst called the results “devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-K programs.”
In his letter, Schoemehl wasn’t necessarily advocating for a state-based program, “If we want our children to grow into responsible adults, then our kids need better options and those options need to start at birth,” he said. Schoemehl is right about one thing—options are key.
A targeted, market-driven program could deliver at least some of the results Schoemehl discussed, though no preschool model is a silver bullet. Missouri already has a large private preschool market. A voucher program that allows parents to choose the option that makes sense for their work schedules and children’s needs is a far better method of expanding access to early childhood education than simply adding a grade to an already struggling public K-12 system.