Shumlin's prek promises are misleading

by Rob Roper

In his budget address, Peter Shumlin delivered rhetorically upon his campaign promise to expand access to universal preschool to all Vermont three and four year olds. He claimed in his speech that we should do this because “investing” one dollar in such a program will save $7 to $16 in the future. These are not a truthful numbers.

The place these numbers come from is a study titled, “Lifetime Effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 40.” The study concluded that children who went through its program realized such dramatic savings over the long run in terms of decreased welfare, prison, durg abuse, etc. But, there’s a significant problem with applying the results of the Perry Study with what’s being offered or contemplated in Vermont. The Perry Study (almost half a century old) dealt with inner city, African American…

… three and four year olds deemed to be at risk for “retarded intellectual functioning and eventual school failure.” It involved either one or two years of half day preschool for seven months each year and periodic home visits. One hundred and twenty-three children participated, 58 children in the experimental group and 65 in the control group. All of the children were of low socioeconomic status and had IQs in the range of 70 to 85.73.”

The teachers in the program were all highly qualified specialists.

In 2006, the Texas Policy Institute ran the numbers for their state, and determined that to implement the Perry Preschool program through the public school system would cost $42,000 per pupil.

Clearly, we cannot honestly compare the scope of this program to what’s being offered in Vermont, nor can we honestly expect similar results when applied to a mainstream kids on a massive scale.

However, prek programs like the one Peter Shumlin is advocating have been applied to mainstream kids on a statewide scale in places like Georgia and Oklahoma. The results? The Reason Foundation published a study in 2006 that found,

There is little empirical evidence to demonstrate any lasting educational or socioeconomic benefit of government run preschool programs for all children. Evidence from performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), which is considered the nation’s report card, argues against the value of investing in universal preschool. Georgia has had universal preschool open to all children since 1995 and Oklahoma has had a universal program in place since 1998…. In a recent analysis of the top 10 best and worst performers, based on percentage point change in fourth grade reading test scores… both Georgia and Oklahoma were in the bottom ten performers.

Where it has been tried, universal preschool has been of little or no measurable benefit to the children (some studies actually show it to be harmful), and it has been extremely costly to the taxpayers. For example, when Louisiana lifted the enrollment caps on its universal program in 2002, enrollment grew from 2000 pupils to 8400 and costs exploded from $15 million to $51 million in just two years. There are roughly 15,000 three and four year olds in Vermont today.

Governor Shumlin has earned a reputation for throwing around numbers that aren’t based on reality or fact. His prek claims only add to that record.