There's nothing controversial-sounding about Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's campaign pledge to make a $10 billion federal investment in high-quality early education. After all, 38 states and the District of Columbia now underwrite pre-kindergarten. With GOP stalwarts such as Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds on board, and support coming from the likes of Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, as well as a host of big-city police chiefs, you'd think that the benefits of preschool are as generally accepted as the reality of global warming. Think again.
While the McCain campaign remains mum on the topic, the free-markets think-tank, the Reason Foundation, has rushed in to fill the void. In an Aug. 22 Wall Street Journal commentary piece that's getting wide circulation in the blogosphere, foundation staffers Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell take a rhetorical cudgel to preschool. Not only is pre-K a waste of money, they claim - it can even do "lasting damage." This op-ed comes dressed in the trappings of social science. That may make it sound impressive, but the argument is pure snake-oil.
The Reason Foundation staffers cherry-pick from the studies to make their case. They treat research whose outcomes comport with their biases as gospel, even when those studies flunk the test of scientific respectability. Research published in leading journals that reaches a contrary result go ignored. The staffers' biggest gaffe is the contention that James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and a leading authority in this field, is an ally. Quite the contrary: In a recent Science article, Heckman calculated that, over a 40-year-period, the annual rate of return on investment for the children who participated in the famous Perry Preschool experiment is a glimmering 16 percent. If Perry Preschool were a business, Warren Buffett would want to invest in it.
These writers show their true colors when they describe the parents of the Perry preschool youngsters as "drug addicts and neglectful." Those mothers and fathers were poor, badly educated African Americans - to leap to the conclusion that they were drug-addled speaks volumes about the authors' biases.
To be sure, pre-kindergarten isn't a panacea. Giving all kids a decent shot at success would require offering parents the support that many of them need to raise their children well, as well as strengthening the public schools. What's more, when preschool is badly done - with classes that are too big, teachers who know too little about child development and parents who are discouraged from getting involved in their own kids' education - no one comes out ahead.
When pre-K is done right, though, the evidence confirms that it can alter the arc of children's lives. That's why the goal of policy should be to guarantee every 3- and 4-year-old a preschool opportunity as good as what the wisest parents would want for their own children.
When the Reason Foundation abuse the research to discredit pre-K they're doing the next generation a disservice. And because good preschool is a sound investment in the country's future, they're short-changing the rest of us as well.
Point and counterpoint on preschool
The evidence demolishes the Reason Foundation's claims.
Claim: Oklahoma and Georgia enroll the biggest proportion of children in pre-kindergarten. Nonetheless, students in those states perform terribly on the nationally mandated fourth-grade reading and math tests. Preschool is money down the drain.
Fact: In both Oklahoma and Georgia, math and reading test scores increased once the preschoolers reached fourth grade. Nationwide, a RAND study shows, good state pre-kindergarten programs lead to higher test scores.
Claim: The benefits of Head Start, the nation's biggest early education program, fade out over time. Any early education gains are illusory.
Fact: The most rigorous research shows that Head Start makes a long-term difference: educational attainment is higher and crime rates are lower.
Claim: Children in Finland, who don't start school until age 7, do well on international tests. If they don't need pre-kindergarten, then why do we?
Fact: Finnish youngsters aren't babes in their mothers' arms until they reach age 7; their parents have a host of early childhood education options from which to choose. What's more important, international studies show that preschool helps all children and that the least advantaged youngsters benefit most. In nations where pre-kindergarten is widely available, 15-year-olds do better on international tests than youngsters in similar countries where pre-kindergarten is less common - that means the benefits of early education endure. Moreover, in countries where most children attend preschool, the test score gap is narrowest - that means early education does the greatest good for those who most need the help.
Claim: Preschool can do lasting damage, reducing kids' motivation and increasing their aggressiveness.
Fact: Studies that meet the highest scientific standards show just the opposite - that good pre-kindergarten programs have positive effects on how children develop socially and emotionally.
Claim: Only the most disadvantaged children can benefit from pre-kindergarten. If government is going to invest in early education, that's where all the money belongs.
Fact: Research dating to the 1980s, including a study of Oklahoma youngsters published in the prestigious journal Science, concludes that while the least well-off kids may gain the most from high-quality preschool, middle-class youngsters are also better off.
David L. Kirp, professor at Berkeley Law and the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of "The Sandbox Investment" (2007).
W. Steven Barnett is the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which was established at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education with a grant from Pew.