This year governors have continued to expand state-run preschool programs. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, signed a program to fund preschool for every 4-year-old in Louisiana by 2013. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, signed Massachusetts’ universal preschool program into law; another Democrat, Jennifer Granholm, boosted funding for Michigan’s pre-K program by $10 million. Across the United States, current state spending on state-run preschool programs is close to $4 billion a year.
Tennessee’s program is considered the gold standard. It meets nine out of 10 criteria for a high-quality program set by the National Institute for Early Education Research, including instructors with teaching credentials, small class size, and comprehensive early learning standards. Yet an interim study for the state Comptroller’s Office, conducted by the Ohio-based Strategic Research Group, finds that the advantages of participating in the program disappear by the time students reach second grade. In every case, in every subject, there was no statistical difference between the children who attended preschool and those who did not. Nor was there any advantage for low- or middle-income children in particular.
This study adds to the growing evidence that students who participate in early education programs do not have lasting academic gains. In Oklahoma and Georgia, which both have decade-long universal preschool programs with high standards, students score below the national average on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation’s benchmark for student achievement. In Oklahoma, where state-funded pre-kindergarten has been in place for 18 years-and offered universally for nearly a decade-students slipped below the national average on math and reading scores for both the fourth and eighth grades after the state began expanding its preschool program.
Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation.