James Kerian: Grand Forks Herald Acknowledges Doubtful Benefits Of Subsidized Preschool


In yesterday’s Grand Forks Herald the Superintendent of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction began her letter to the editor with a quote from her predecessor in 1894:

“The school age of children in this state (should) be changed so as to admit children of 3 or 4 years”

Using government funds to incentivize sending toddlers to school is apparently an idea that is over 120 years old in this state.  Fortunately we have consistently rejected that horrible piece of advice from our education bureaucracy.  Hopefully the House of Representatives will reject SB 2151 and continue this long tradition of common sense here in North Dakota.

The Department of Public Instruction has never been known to oppose any legislation that would increase education spending in this state but in their public promotion of SB 2151 they have claimed, alternately, to be seeking either the empowerment of parents or the educational advancement of children.  It’s hard to know which claim is less credible.

The Superintendent laments that:

“Only 36 percent of North Dakota’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in an early childhood care or education program. That ranks as the fifth-lowest rate in the nation.”

Does this sound like someone who only wants parents to have the option of sending their children to preschool or someone who wants state policy to result in more parents choosing preschool?  This bill is not about empowering parents.  It is about influencing them to do what the DPI wants.

And why does the DPI want more children in preschool?  The Superintendent claims:

“This intuitive understanding of the benefits of early childhood education is supported by a wealth of social and medical research. It shows early childhood education encourages a youngster’s brain development and improves a child’s ability to learn during his or her lifetime.”

The truth, however, is that the intuitive notion that toddler’s don’t benefit very much from school is supported by the real, objective, professional and recent research.  The Editorials of the Grand Forks Herald are hardly a hotbed of conservative thought but even the Herald’s Tom Dennis acknowledged yesterday the questionable benefit of subsidized preschool:

“Here’s the thing: If the benefits of such a program were obvious, the program would have been subsidized years ago. But the research is dogged by findings such as these: “The longitudinal effects found for TN‐VPK so far are decidedly mixed,” as a blue-chip, Vanderbilt University study of Tennessee’s pre-K program found.
Or as last year’s U.S. Department of Health and Human Services review concluded, “the Head Start Impact Study has shown that having access to Head Start improves children’s preschool experiences and school readiness in certain areas, though few of those advantages persisting through third grade. … (In this study), we find little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start. … (T)here is no indication that either high quality Head Start or low quality Head Start in any dimension leads to program impacts lasting into third grade.”

This is not to suggest that preschool is never a good option.  I attended preschool as a child because preschool was the best option for our family at that time.  My children do not attend preschool because them staying home is the best option for our family right now.  Preschool is a complex decision for each family and neither the DPI nor the state legislature has any business trying to nudge, shove, push, ease or otherwise manipulate parents into making one decision over the other.

SB 2151 should be rejected by the legislature.  It is just as bad of an idea today as it was in 1894.