Tennessee preschool program provides no academic benefit

By Aaron Rice
July 19, 2018

A survey of Tennessee’s voluntary state funded preschool program found statistically significant negative results for children who enrolled in the program compared to those that did not.

There have been numerous studies on early childhood education in the past that proponents will likely point to in an attempt to discredit this survey. But this is the first randomized control test, or “gold standard” study. Because the program was oversubscribed, researchers were able to randomize the sample and provide a control group.

As we have often seen, this study showed some positive effects on student achievement at the end of preschool, but those gains have dissipated as the children enter elementary school. Specifically, by third grade, the survey found statistically-significant adverse actions on student math and science achievement and no significant effects on reading achievement.

These results don’t mix with the popular narrative of the day: that preschool is a wonderful thing, it is popular, and we would be better off if every parent began enrolling their child in a program at three years old. And because parents aren’t doing this, that is why their children may struggle when they hit kindergarten. That is the message from many politicians and the media.

Mississippi is headed in that direction

Mississippi began its journey into state funded preschool five years ago. Proponents celebrated that we were “finally” doing something. At the time, Mississippi Center for Public Policy was one of the few groups willing to speak out against such a program. As is often the case, legislators push a program because it sounds good or feels right without looking at the unintended consequences.

Mississippi has many wonderful private preschool providers. Many are run by churches, others by private schools or some other private enterprise. But they are competing with one another. They compete for students and the tuition needed to stay in business. That is healthy.

And parents can then choose the best program- for their family. That decision may be based on curriculum, or some other factor that is important to them such as whether the program is three days or five days or if it is a half day or full day. And it will usually involve talking with friends or scouring Facebook or other websites for reviews.

Beyond that, preschool isn’t necessarily the preferred early childhood education format for every family. Data shows it’s not and we see parents becoming very flexible for their children. If one parent can’t stay at home full time, many parents adjust their schedule so one parent can always be at home. Or they start working from home. Or they have relatives or friends watch their child. Again, there are options that families are taking advantage of.

Parents still offer the best childcare

For those who are fans of regulations, you will like the Tennessee program. The state mandates the minimum length of daily instructional time and the maximum size of a classroom. All teachers need a state license and each school has to choose among a set of approved curricula. So, very much like elementary and secondary school. And the results weren’t that much different.

What children need are involved parents. This has not changed, and will not change. Family is the building block of society and parents are responsible for raising their children. Children who stayed at home in Tennessee were better off than children who were enrolled in the program.

The debate today is similar to any time large government programs were born and expanded. In the 1960s, there was a perception that families and churches aren’t meeting all the needs for those in poverty, so the assumption is that government must step in. That’s the wrong step to take.

Yes, poverty programs solved some short-term problems, but they created the long-term perception that government was going to take care of people, inadvertently leading to more single-parent families. And the poverty rate remains virtually unchanged.

There is a belief that if something is wrong then only government can solve it. And as time passes, the government program only becomes larger and the private or non-profit sector shrinks before it disappears. We then begin living under the impression that this is government’s responsibility, regardless of how poorly government is functioning.

A parent friendly solution

Many parents like the idea of state funded early childhood education because it would remove a financial burden. That is understandable, but the state can do that without usurping the role of the private sector, and the family. And moving children from a good setting to a free, but poor, setting.

The federal government offers tax credits to help with childcare costs, and the state could do something similar. Rather than investing tax dollars in programs at state approved preschools, that same money could be returned to families for their child’s needs via tax credits. Families would be helped, the private sector would flourish, and government would not be expanded.


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