James Kerian: Subsidizing Preschool Will Not Make Our Children Smarter


With summer programs, lowering the compulsory attendance ageafter-school programs, and now state-funded preschool (SB 2151) the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction is essentially demanding taxpayer care of all children in the state for every waking moment of their lives from the age of three until they graduate from high school.  At that point President Obama wants the federal government to take over and provide the kids with free college.

In his push for subsidized preschool President Obama made it quite clear that preschool is not just an option that he wants presented to parents.  He has explicitly stated that it is important to him that there be a decrease in the number of families where one parent stays home with their children.  To drive home his point the president recently proposed tax credits that would be available only to households where both parents are working.

Any North Dakota legislator who thinks they are helping parents by subsidizing preschool should remember that subsidized programs are not just options presented to each family, they are nudges.  The lower your family’s income is the more that nudge feels like a shove.[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]As the OPRE report stated “There were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found”[/mks_pullquote]

The most frequently touted excuse for the Department of Public Instruction’s ever growing role in raising our children is that it will supposedly give our children a competitive advantage for the rest of their lives if they start school younger.  The analogy one legislator shared is that preschool is like giving a child a head start in a 400 meter race.  The truth is that preschool is like trying to train your 3 year old to run faster and expecting that to help him become the next Usain Bolt.  If you put enough time, work, and effort into the ordeal then you might end up with a faster than average five year old but any formerly overenthusiastic parent can tell you that at that age you’re unlikely to make much of a real difference in the child’s long term athletic future.

This study by the University of Chicago and the University of California, this study by the Department of Health and Human Services, this study from Vanderbilt and this Office of Planning Research and Evaluation report have all confirmed the “fade-out” effect of preschool programs.  As the OPRE report stated “In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices.”  This, again, will not be a surprise to anyone who has tried to turn their child into the next Michael Phelps by teaching their toddler to swim.  For the first couple of years you’ll have a toddler that swims better than their peers.  After that the difference will almost certainly fade away.

This is not to suggest that preschool is never a good option but there is a tremendous amount of data (and common sense) debunking the claim that preschool bestows some great academic advantage.  I attended preschool as a child (some readers may consider that the best evidence against it).  Preschool was the best option for our family when I was a child.  My children do not attend preschool.  That is the best option for our family right now.  Preschool is a complex decision for each family and neither President Obama nor the state legislature has any business trying to nudge, shove, push, ease or otherwise manipulate parents into making one decision over the other.

The fair and recent studies conducted by those who do not have a financial or political interest in continuously expanding the school system show that there is no long term academic benefit to our pre-Kindergarten children being raised by the Department of Public Instruction.