Yet another high-quality study is raising serious doubts about the centerpiece of the Democrats’ family-policy agenda: Publicly-funded early-childhood education. Following up on two similar studies on universal Pre-K programs in Tennessee and Quebec, British researchers examined the effects of a Labour-backed reform that introduced “free part-time pre-school places for three year olds in England in the early 2000s.” Overall, the policy made daycare more affordable for some families, but had very little effect on students’ educational achievement in the long-run. From the Royal Economic Society’s summary:
The introduction of free part-time pre-school places for three year olds in England in the early 2000s led to small improvements in the children’s attainment at age five but with no apparent benefits by the ages of seven and eleven. That is the central finding of a study by researchers from the universities of Essex and Surrey, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and published in the May 2016 issue of the Economic Journal. […]
Dr Jo Blanden, one of the research team, comments: ‘On the face of it, our results cast some doubt over the value for money of universal early education. More than 70% of the children taking up free places would probably have gone to nursery anyway, and children’s test scores do not seem to be any higher in the longer term as a result of the policy.’
Universal Pre-K has become the crown jewel for blue modelers since the ratification of Obamacare. But the central argument for the $75 billion program—that it will narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor students—is increasingly in question.
That’s not to say that publicly funded preschool would have no benefits whatsoever. The RES study found that the British program saved childcare money for some parents—and it’s true that low-income American parents are struggling with childcare costs. But the better course of action is to offer those parents a tax break—that is, to give money back to them directly to spend as they see fit, rather than grafting it on to an expensive and probably ineffective new federal program.