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Why Universal Pre-K Is a Step Backwards

Obama’s call for universal preschool access, one of the few concrete proposals in an otherwise bland State of the Union Address, was the culmination of an idea inspired by the success of programs like the Perry Preschool Program. There has been some research to suggest that children who attend preschool regularly go on to lead more successful lives than those who don’t, even when socioeconomic factors are accounted for. In response to the President’s State of the Union speech, the WSJ took a look at Oklahoma, one of the first states to roll out state-funded preschools, to see how their program is actually faring.

The results aren’t all that shocking. On the positive side of the ledger, children from these programs do better in school, entering Kindergarten more prepared, so much so in fact that some Kindergartens have been forced to update their curricula to account for the difference. On the negative side, Oklahoma is now struggling with a lack of qualified teachers and space to house students, with many resorting to hosting classes in strip malls and nursing homes. Unfortunately, no one is certain about the stats that really matter: the ones that would tell us whether the academic benefits of these programs last throughout a child’s education and into adulthood

But beyond the stats (the specifics of which you can find here), we have our own reasons for being skeptical about programs like Oklahoma’s: they typically amount to a doubling down on the current public school model. It’s no secret that American K-12 public schools are seriously under-performing  We rank in the middle of all OECD countries despite outspending nearly all of them. The answer to our problems isn’t likely to be found in putting kids through yet another year of a largely failed system.

Overall, the preschool initiative is a typical Obama project in that it’s a sincere but backward-looking solution to a real social problem. Rather than do the difficult work of re-thinking institutions, this administration has tried time and again to graft 20th-century solutions onto 21st-century problems.

We need to get outside the confines of the blue box. We need to de-institutionalize childhood education as much as possible. It’s time for something new.

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