On Preschooling, Universal and Otherwise: No Hope?

Seeing as it appears to be Say Controversial Things About Public Education Week, I want to make a couple of remarks about state-sponsored preschool programs, by way of a column I wrote for Culture11 late last year.

That column grew out of what was, and still remains, a deep frustration with the ways that advocates for “universal” preschool have drawn on the work of Chicago economist James Heckman, whose research on the social and economic benefits of preschool programs is frequently put forward in support of the claim that federal and state governments need to make publicly-funded preschooling available to all. That Heckman’s work would be used to this end isn’t initially very surprising: he’s a Nobel laureate, after all, and his research into the economic benefits of preschool has turned up some tremendously encouraging results. But as I wrote in my column, Heckman’s case for preschool simply isn’t a case for universal preschool, and using his work to such an end requires ignoring a number of his own convictions:

[Heckman] is much more careful than many of those who appeal to his work to distinguish between the sorts of targeted preschool programs that have actually been found to work and huge, multibillion-dollar boondoggles like the Obama-Biden “Zero to Five” plan. While Heckman does speak and write passionately about the value of intensive early intervention in the lives of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, enlisting him as an advocate for a federally-sponsored universal preschool program requires severe distortions of his actual views: for example, a 2006 essay that Heckman wrote for the Wall Street Journal closes with the observation that there is “little basis for providing universal programs at zero cost,” and “no reason for [early childhood] interventions to be conducted in public centers.”

“Vouchers,” Heckman continues, “that can be used in privately run programs would promote competition and efficiency in the provision of early enrichment programs. They would allow parents to choose the venues and values offered in the programs that enrich their child’s earliest years.” Appropriately targeted, means-tested, and choice-driven ventures are one thing; but to spend public dollars in such a way as to “try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing,” as he put it in a 2005 interview, is “foolish.”

So what gives? What I wrote at the time, and still think is basically right, was that Heckman has been able to be enlisted on the side of universal preschool largely because opponents of such policies have failed to claim the moral high ground in anything like the way that they’ve – arguably, anyway – claimed it so successfully in the “school choice” approach to primary and secondary education. And again, there’s a reason for this: the kind of programs that Heckman’s research has found to work haven’t been ones like Head Start; they’re far more expensive than a universal program ever could be, and involve quite a lot more time and effort than preschool usually does. When Heckman cautions against universality as in the quotes above, or concludes a paper (gated, I guess) that discusses the famed Perry Preschool Program by saying that “[i]nvesting in disadvantaged (my emphasis – JS) young children is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large”, he means exactly what he says: every dollar spent on taxpayer-funded daycare for rich and middle-class kids is a dollar not spent on having teachers come, as they did in the Perry Program, to visit the homes of kids who are worse off. But as it is, there’s no real constituency for spending tens of thousands of dollars a head only on the lower-class kids who’d really stand – and need – to benefit.

All of which is just to say that politics is a drag, isn’t it? On one team you’ve got a group that supports the educational lobby and so favors universality; on the other you’ve got the group that screams “Socialism!” and “Statism!” at the faintest whiffs of redistribution or government intervention; and over on the sidelines you’ve got a rag-tag group, clinging tightly to the data showing that they’ve got an idea that just might work, watching the ongoing battle with horror and occasionally spitting into the wind. I think I need a beer.