By Bill Korach www.thereportcard.org
President Obama is pushing tax hikes again to support more government spending including an expansion of Operation Head Start. Head Start is a pre-school program that is supposed to boost learning in for underprivileged children. Obama claims that “study after study” shows Head Start has been a huge success, but according to a study by The Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start is ineffective. DHHS says that by the 3rd grade, Operation Head Start had little impact on learning. President Obama wants government power and expansion to increase regardless of the effectiveness of government programs. The American taxpayer is supposed to be satisfied that increased government spending is an example of “caring.” Enslaving future generations in debt, especially to pay for useless programs, is not “caring” it’s just cynical politics. American schools are in desperate need of reform. But wasting money that could be used for teacher incentives, re-incorporation of sound history and civics instruction and elimination of politically correct curricula would be a good place to begin to improve educational standards.
Rich Lowery commented on Head Start and government preschool programs in the “Dailey Herald.”
President Obama called for universal preschool funded by the federal government in cooperation with the states. He cited “study after study” showing that investment in pre-K pays for itself several times over by creating better outcomes for children.
He said this about two months after the release of a devastating report on the ineffectiveness of the federal government’s already existing $8 billion-a-year pre-K program, Head Start. The study wasn’t published by The Heritage Foundation. The Kochs didn’t fund it. It was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which presumably doesn’t have a right-wing agenda or bristle with hostility toward children.
Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution calls the study “one of the most ambitious, methodologically rigorous, and expensive federal-program evaluations carried out in the last quarter century.” He might have added “one of the most inconvenient.” Since it was released the Friday before Christmas, the best day of the year to bury bad news, even the president and his speechwriters might have missed it.
The HHS study concluded: “There were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts . . . in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.”
Yesterday “The Wall Street Journal” editorialized on the new Obama spending initiative:
Government failure is hardly new, though President Obama has given it a characteristic new twist: A program’s proven inability to do the things it is supposed to do is now an argument for expanding it. In our new progressive era, no program can ever end because the only reason government fails is that there wasn’t enough government in the first place.
The 2009 stimulus, the greatest burst of spending in 30 years, produced the worst recovery in 80 years—so therefore we now need even more spending. The economy requires QE-infinity because it is still too weak despite years of historic monetary easing. The entitlement state is dysfunctional and unaffordable, so add another entitlement. Oh, and ObamaCare is supposed to be Washington’s biggest attack on economic inequality in generations, yet we must create still more transfer payments in the name of the Gini coefficient.
There may not be a better illustration of this contradiction between intentions and results than Mr. Obama’s new demand for free universal preschool.
Speaking last week in Decatur, Georgia, Mr. Obama said that “education has to start at the earliest possible age” and cited “study after study” that purport to show public preschool for every child results in lasting academic gains and other cognitive and social improvements. He also claimed universal pre-K can lead to higher wages later in life and less crime and dependence on government—if not feed the masses with five loaves and two fishes.
“Hope is found in what works,” Mr. Obama added. “This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here.”
The President was in Georgia because since 1995 the state has subsidized free preschool, regardless of family income. Some 59.3% of four-year-olds were enrolled in the 2010-2011 school year, and Mr. Obama is right that the state is a good example of what universal pre-K can buy.
Georgia’s fourth- and eighth-grade reading, math and science scores all trail the national average, and the spread between white and black or Hispanic students is 25 points. Nearly one of three teenagers drops out of high school, the third worst rate in the country. All of this is consistent with the phenomenon known as “fade out,” in which any tangible gains from preschool dissipate as students progress through elementary school.
Careful work by Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research looked at student achievement in Georgia as its pre-K program phased in. While she found some modest gains, she also concluded that the costs outweighed the benefits by a ratio of six to one. Nearly 80% of enrollment is “just a transfer of income from the government to families of four year olds” who would have attended preschool anyway.
Nationwide today about 1.3 million kids, or 28% of all four-year-olds, attend state-funded pre-K, a leap from 14% in 2002. The empirical case for this expansion—the evidence that universal preschool “works,” as Mr. Obama put it—rests on two academic studies, the Abecedarian and Perry projects, conducted four and five decades ago.
Both projects were rigorous randomized trials, comparing kids who got pre-K benefits with a control group that didn’t. They were also longitudinal, following the participants into adulthood. The Abecedarian project that began in 1972 involved 111 infants in North Carolina, while the Perry project of 1962-on involved 123 poor children and their families in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
These experiments showed vast returns on investment, the source of Mr. Obama’s claim that every early education dollar generates $7 down the line. Yet Abecedarian and Perry cost between $16,000 to $41,000 per child per year (in current dollars), the higher end comparable to Ivy League tuition. Georgia spends $4,298 per child.
The extra money was required because these were very intensive interventions that included home visits, parent counseling, nutrition, health care and other social services. They were micro-enterprises run by the most experienced early education experts and impossible to replicate. Mr. Obama is simply pocketing their results and pretending that this can be extrapolated to the entire population. It can’t even be replicated in Georgia.
For this reason, what “study after study” really suggest is that government-funded pre-K programs are best when they are targeted at low-income, disadvantaged or minority children—those with the most need. Such a modest, practical reform may lack Mr. Obama’s preferred political grandeur, but the other reason he didn’t propose it is that the government has already been doing it for a half-century.
That would be Lyndon Johnson’s Head Start program, birth date 1965. In December of last year, the Health and Human Services Department released the most comprehensive study of Head Start to date, which took years to prepare. The 346-page report followed toddlers who won lotteries to join Head Start in several states and those who didn’t through the third grade. There were no measurable differences between the two groups across 47 outcome measures. In other words, Head Start’s impact is no better than random.
Preschool activists explain away such results by claiming that different programs vary enormously in quality. The White House claims fewer than three in 10 kids are in a “high quality” program. Since we don’t live in Lake Wobegon, well, of course. But it turns out that there are even deep disagreements in the early education literature about how to improve quality, or even how to measure quality in a valid, objective, reliable and fair way.
Counting Head Start, special education and state-subsidized preschool, 42% of four-year-olds are now enrolled in a government program. Federal, state and local financing for early learning is closing in on $40 billion a year, double what it was a decade ago. But can anyone say that achievement is twice as good—or even as good?
The problem of America’s undeveloped human potential is real, but Mr. Obama has set up a non-falsifiable evidentiary standard for government. The public schools fail the poor, but reforming them is hard and would upset the unions. So instead liberals propose Head Start to prepare poor kids for kindergarten. Head Start has little to show after 47 years, but rather than replacing it, the new liberal solution is to expand it to everyone.
Meanwhile, pundits who claim to be empiricists lecture Republicans to agree to all this so they don’t appear to be so hostile to government. Everyone pretends that spending more on programs that have demonstrably failed is a sign of compassion and “what works,” government expands without results, and the poor are offered only the false hope of liberal good intentions.
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