As the president said during his State of the Union, the policy is based on research that asserts preschool makes for a more prosperous society.
Here a cursory summary of that research.
Preschool is a great investment (if you're willing to wait 20 years).
According to a 2006 Pew report, investment in preschool, while initially costly, greatly pays off down the road. "Although in the near-term it is easier to create new jobs through economic development subsidies, preschool's long-term effect on job creation is more than twice as large as business subsidies," the report states. Granted, it takes a few decades for the benefits to mount.
That graph looks nice, but how much is this investment going to cost? We must be talking "big government" dollars.
We are. Again, according to the 2006 Pew data, it will cost an extra $8 billion a year to fund preschool for all 4-year-olds as Obama is proposing. But that's just for a three-hour program. Full-day programs would cost much more, as would extending programs to 3-year-olds. Similarly, the Center for American Progress estimates that a plan to fund preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds would cost $98.4 billion over 10 years.
But as Wonkblog points out, this could be a smart investment for the government. Kids who do better in school get better jobs, make more money, and pay more taxes. And preschool is thought to greatly enhance the educational outcome of low-income children (more on that below). Plus, they are less likely to drain federal resources by avoiding jail and welfare. According to an analysis by University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman, the rate of return per dollar spent on preschool is between 6 percent and 10 percent, which is better than most investments.
OK. That's a lot of cash. But what's the proof that this makes meaningful gains in individual achievement?
The Perry Preschool Study has one of the furthest-reaching data sets on this. In the early '60s, the experimenters placed 123 poor black students in Michigan into either a preschool program or no preschool. They have been tracking this group for more than 40 years.
In striking ways, the achievements of those in the preschool program exceeded those who did not attend.
Another, much larger 25-year study showed similar findings. In a group of 1,400 low-income children, those who had been exposed to preschool at age 3 were 9 percent more likely to have graduated from high school and were 22 percent less likely to have been arrested by age 28.
Preschool has also been shown to enhance IQ in disadvantaged children by 4 points or more.
These findings are astounding! But be careful in extrapolating to the population at large.
Keep in mind that the participants of these studies are children from low-income families. They have the most to gain from preschool. In an academic review of the state of the field, researchers at the University of Virginia found:
Children from lower-income families tend to gain more from good preschool education than do more advantaged children. However, the educational achievement gains for non-disadvantaged children are substantial, perhaps 75% as large as the gains for low-income children.