Ari Armstrong, Education, Politics, Proposition EE, Uncategorized

Armstrong: A rocky rollout for Colorado’s universal pre-K

“Polis suggests some parents who want universal pre-K are just looking for child care.” That’s a recent provocative headline by 9news about one of Governor Jared Polis’s key policy initiatives.

I agree with CPR reporter Andrew Kenney that the headline is a bit of cheap shot; as Kenney says, “I read the quote as saying that some needs beyond 18 hours a week are better served by daycare than preschool.”

Regardless, the rollout of Colorado’s pre-K program has been rocky. The people footing the bill, taxpayers, deserve answers regarding the implementation of the program and, eventually, its long-term impacts.

9News has the stats: “38,740 preschoolers have been matched with a [half-day preschool] through the state’s new portal. Last year, before the state started funding half-day preschool for all, there were 20,928 children enrolled.” Of those, 3,774 families identified as low-income with another stressor, such as being a “dual language learner” (i.e., learning English as a second language), and those families got full-day funding.

An additional 9,150 families with some stressing condition were notified in late July that they would not be getting full-day funding. The problem, as another 9News story relates, is that many of those families thought they were getting full-day funding and were hit with last-minute sticker shock for the other half day.

9News’s Marshall Zelinger asked Polis, “Several parents, since, have told me that to keep their full-day spot, parents of qualifying factor students, they may have to pay $500, $800 or $1,000 a month. . . Why weren’t 9,100 parents given more than a couple of weeks’ notice before school started?”

Polis dodged that question and emphasized that the program was intended as a half-day program. He said regular childcare, as opposed to preschool, can be “much less expensive.” And, he said, “Kids benefit the most in that 15-to-20-hour range.” Currently, he said, the program covers a 15 hour per week half-day program; he wants to see that expanded to 18 hours.

Polis didn’t actually say that “some parents who want universal pre-K are just looking for child care.” But, let’s be honest here, that is precisely the case. Indeed, especially if we look at the poor academic performance of many Colorado students, it’s obvious that many parents look at all of K–12 schooling mainly as free child care.

In another story, Zelinger points out that the rough rollout of the pre-K program also is leaving some preschool providers in a lurch, as they expected tax-funded students to show up who did not always do so.

CPR’s Jenny Brundin reports, “A new approach to reimbursing private providers, a year of continually shifting rules, and a lack of knowledge about who and how many children will be showing up to school districts has . . . the Colorado Association of School Executives, a major education organization, considering legal action.”

Brundin describes the situation of one preschool owner: “The system was set up to incentivize providers to sign up for UPK,” universal preschool, by setting aside seats for subsidized families. “But in late June . . . that promise changed. The department [of Early Childhood] would pay based on July enrollments rather than seats available for UPK families.” This resulted in layoffs at the preschool.

In short, a new government program that uses tax dollars to subsidize privately owned preschools to serve tens of thousands of families is a bit of a mess. Whoever would have guessed?

Presumably, the short-term problems with the launch of the program will be worked out over time. Then the broader questions remain: What will be the long-term impact of the pre-K program on students’ success? And will the sate make any serious effort to track those outcomes?

Mixed results for pre-K programs

Polis told Zelinger, “The biggest benefit from preschool, that the studies show, is developmentally appropriate in that 15-to-20-hour range.” Is that really what “the studies” show?

Last year, NPR published an insightful piece by Anya Kamenetz reviewing the results of a high-quality study out of Tennessee. The study is high quality because it involves a large number of students and takes advantage of a “natural experiment” in which some low-income students got into a preschool program by lottery. This in effect created a control group of the students who did not get in, allowing a useful comparison to the students who did.

Here are the results: “After third grade, they [the students who got into the program] were doing worse than the control group. And at the end of sixth grade, they were doing even worse. They had lower test scores, were more likely to be in special education, and were more likely to get into trouble in school, including serious trouble like suspensions.”

How could that be? How could more schooling at the pre-K level lead to worse educational outcomes years later? Kamenetz interviewed Dale Farran, lead author of the study in question, and the discussion yielded some clues.

“Families of means tend to choose play-based preschool programs with art, movement, music and nature,” Kamenetz paraphrases Farran. The Tennessee program involved more talking by teachers, more boring drills, a lot of waiting around for bathrooms and the like, and a lot of dictatorial control. Farran said many children subjected to such treatment are “learning sort of an almost allergic reaction to the amount of external control that . . . they’re having to experience in school.”

But maybe the Tennessee program was especially bad, and a better-run program can improve outcomes rather than worsen them. Kamenetz also says that a study out of Boston “found that the preschool kids had better disciplinary records and were much more likely to graduate from high school, take the SATs and go to college, though their test scores didn’t show a difference.”

The 2021 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds of the Boston program: “Preschool enrollment boosts college attendance, as well as SAT test-taking and high school graduation. Preschool also decreases several disciplinary measures including juvenile incarceration, but has no detectable impact on state achievement test scores.”

Earlier this year, Education Week published an article by Sarah Sparks indicating that a preschool program in Tulsa had some good outcomes. But the benefits were limited: “Early benefits of preschool participation on students’ math and reading scores mostly faded away by the time students reached high school—a common fade-out problem seen for early education. But [the study in question] found that students who had participated in Tulsa’s state-funded preschool programs were more likely to attend school regularly and take more-challenging courses than those who participated in Head Start or did not receive early-childhood education.”

However, if you dig deep into the Tulsa study, you find the following qualifier: “[T]his study is observational. We did not employ random assignment or take advantage of a lottery.” In other words, the improved outcomes could as easily be a result of quality of parenting of those who opted in to the programs in question.

Here is my common-sense take on the preschool studies. A well-designed preschool program with good teachers probably generally helps children. However, that doesn’t mean the state should subsidize all families; better-off families generally will achieve the benefits without the subsidy. Disadvantaged children, who tend to get less help at home and may suffer chaotic or even violent surroundings, probably benefit the most from spending time at a quality preschool.

Questions for Polis

I have two main questions for Polis and other supporters of the tax-funded preschool program. Why not subsidize only disadvantaged students? And why not give the money directly to the families in question to spend however they want?

Polis told Zelinger, “We don’t give more fourth grade hours to low-income families. We give a universal experience, public education is something that that unites us, right? And whether you’re making a million dollars a year, or you’re unemployed, your kid can go to fourth grade for free in our state. I view half-day preschool the same way.”

Polis is saying that government should force low-income and middle-class people to subsidize preschool for the children of millionaires. Especially if you’re a hard-core left-wing Progressive, that makes no sense. Not only are such wealth transfers unfair, but wealthier people who use the tax-funded schools are likely to do so by foregoing better-quality options.

As for Polis’s comment that government-run schools “unite us”—has he bothered to look at recent headlines regarding the public schools? Those schools are a constant source of social division and strife.

Insofar as we are concerned about less-well-off families, it certainly is not obvious to me that tax-funded preschools are better than just giving that cash to poor families. Some parents would use that cash to cut down on work hours and increase time spent with their children. Others would use it to secure a more comfortable, peaceful, and secure living environment. Others, to buy access to other educational opportunities.

Can anyone say with confidence that spending that money on government-managed preschool programs will achieve better outcomes relative to direct transfers? I doubt it. I suspect that if government offered families a choice, almost all would take the cash. Does Polis really know better than those parents what is best for their families?

My hard-core libertarian friends, of course, will question any use of government funds for schools. But that’s a much broader issue, and that libertarian position is far outside today’s Overton Window.

In 2020, voters passed Proposition EE by a wide margin, which raises nicotine taxes largely to fund preschool. However, the legislature can modify the relevant statutory language at will. Responsible legislators, then, will seek to learn whether Colorado’s preschool program improves student outcomes over time, relative both to not spending that money at all and to giving the money directly to poor families with children. Or will this program, like so many others, become a means to serve special interests rather than to best improve the lives of Colorado families?

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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