Obama pushes universal preschool despite shaky evidence

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Robby Soave Reporter
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President Obama’s recently unveiled federal budget proposal for the year 2014 includes new funding for early childhood education, but critics say the president has ignored mountains of evidence undermining the case for universal preschool.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama proposed, “working with states to make high quality preschool available to every single child in America.” Obama’s federal budget proposal, unveiled Wednesday, includes $71 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Education to expand existing early childhood education under the Preschool for All program. Taxes on cigarettes will provide the funds.

“Investments in preschool education are the single largest area of new investment in this year’s budget,” said Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a professor of education at Harvard University, during a public forum on the issue. “It’s to be paid for through tobacco tax increases.”

Universal preschool makes kids better prepared for higher learning while also reducing societal ills like teen pregnancy, according to the president.

But those findings aren’t well supported, argued Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation.

“If you look at the results, not only is there no evidence for some of the big, lofty social goals… there’s even very little evidence for the more modest educational goals,” she said in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart came to Obama’s defense in a recent segment, lavishing praise on the president’s universal preschool proposal while accusing conservatives who oppose it of ignoring the evidence.

And what evidence might that be? Stewart cited a 2012 study of Head Start, a federal preschool program, conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services. But far from backing up his claims, the study actually found that kids who went through preschool were no more proficient than their peers by the third grade. The benefits that Stewart attributed to Head Start, such as crime reduction and school attainment, were listed as “possible” outcomes, rather than proven ones, in the 2012 study.

“What is shocking to me about Stewart and Obama is these are folks who pride themselves on being evidence based,” she said. “The evidence is so clear that preschool doesn’t really produce big gains, and they still keep plugging this.”

In a column, Dalmia and Reason’s education director Lisa Snell looked at the results from preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma — two states often cited by Obama as preschool success stories. They found no evidence that preschool made a difference on the social front, and very little evidence that it impacted the educational front.

On the plus side, data did show modest improvements in boys’ mathematics scores.

But on the whole, standardized test scores painted a mixed picture: Georgia improved, but Oklahoma lost ground. Neither state improved its high school graduation rate. And the achievement gap between white and black students remained basically the same.

“That Obama wants to foist these programs on the rest of the country says something about the reading and math proficiency of his administration,” wrote Dalmia and Snell.

They aren’t the only ones who have drawn a different conclusion than the president. Charles Murray, author of the book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” recently examined the evidence in favor of Head Start and found it considerably lacking.

“Head Start has never proved long-term results in half a century of existence,” he wrote in a column for Bloomberg. “In the most rigorous evaluation ever conducted, Head Start doesn’t show results that persist even until the third grade.”

Funding for universal preschool is likely to be a contentious issue during budget negotiations. Republicans in the House of Representatives have already indicated that they will likely oppose it, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

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