Saturday, August 11, 2007

As States Tackle Poverty,Preschool Gets High Marks

This from Deborah Solomon at the Wall Street Journal:

New Lobbying Strategy
Fuels National Move
For Universal Classes

In Washington and statehouses across the country, preschool is moving to the head of the class.

Florida and Oklahoma are among the states that have started providing free preschool for any 4-year-old whose parents want it. Illinois and New York plan to do the same. Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to spend $15 billion over five years on universal preschool funding. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls preschool one cure for inequality.

The movement represents one of the most significant expansions in public education in the 90 years since World War I, when kindergarten first became standard in American schools. It has taken off as politicians look for relatively inexpensive ways to tackle the growing rich-poor gap in the U.S. They have found spending on children is usually an easy sell.

It took a well-orchestrated campaign to put pre-K on the top of political agendas -- and new tactics that didn't rely on do-gooder rhetoric. Among those working on the issue are the research director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, a billionaire Oklahoma oil man and a foundation executive in Philadelphia.

Their winning pitch: Making pre-K as prevalent as kindergarten is a prudent investment. Early schooling, they say, makes kids more likely to stay in school and turn into productive taxpayers.

"Politicians have a choice to make. They can do things like build sports stadiums that offer virtually no economic return, or they can invest in early education programs with a 16% rate of return," says Art Rolnick, the Minneapolis Fed official, who came up with that number after reviewing a three-decade study of youngsters growing up in Ypsilanti, Mich.

So far, few organizations are pushing the case against preschool, but the argument does exist.

Some skeptics predict the hefty return claimed by Mr. Rolnick would quickly shrink if states rush to make preschool universal. They cite some studies suggesting that Head Start, the federal program for disadvantaged preschoolers, gives children little edge when entering elementary school.

"The current full-scale Head Start program is having a disappointing impact on kids," says Douglas Besharov of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Pre-K is an important part of the tool chest for reducing the achievement gap...but will the return on investment be as great as people say? I don't think so."

Until recently, preschool was for a minority. Most American children began school at age 5 in kindergarten. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson created Head Start for disadvantaged children as young as age 3, part of his War on Poverty. Today, about 900,000 low-income children are enrolled in Head Start, which also includes programs in nutrition and health care.

In all, 55% of 3- and 4-year-olds are now enrolled in a school of some sort. The best-off are most likely to send their children to pre-K: In families with incomes of about $100,000, 80% of 3- and 4-year olds are enrolled, according to the Pew Charitable Trust's National Institute for Early Education Research...

...Pew established its Pre-K Now advocacy group to support activists in states. It funded the National Institute for Early Education Research. To date, Pew has spent about $58 million on the campaign, a substantial sum for a foundation that spends about $250 million a year altogether.

One of Pew's grants, in 2003, provided $542,000 to Columbia University's Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media to "build media knowledge" of preschool. A 2004 Pew analysis said reporters had the perception that "early childhood education was not a 'big-time' story." The institute set out to change that with seminars to give journalists story ideas and tips on how to win prominent placement for the subject...

..A May 2006 Hechinger report boasted that "just three days after the Hechinger seminar" a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote a story about the Virginia governor's plan to give public funding to child-care providers.

About two years into Pew's campaign, the Minneapolis Fed's Mr. Rolnick became an unlikely ally. A Fed economist since 1970, Mr. Rolnick had studied pre-Civil War banking and done research suggesting that governments are wasting money subsidizing sports stadiums. While he has two children, "I thought education started in kindergarten," he says.

In 2003, Mr. Rolnick heard a Minneapolis early-education group argue that government should spend on preschool mainly because it's the right thing to do. He scoffed. "Policymakers need more guidance than that," he says.

The group asked Mr. Rolnick to help make the case. He says he loves to dive into data, so he scrutinized some of the research that helped persuade Ms. Urahn, particularly a 1962 study of 123 low-income black children in Ypsilanti. Half were sent to preschool, and half weren't. After tracking the students over three decades, researchers found those who went to preschool were less likely to need special education and had higher test scores.

Mr. Rolnick and a colleague crunched the data, calculating that for every $1 invested in preschool, there was a $16 return from lower crime, fewer welfare payments and higher earnings.

The magnitude surprised everyone. Mr. Rolnick asked economist James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, to check the work. The results matched Mr. Rolnick's.

Among those intrigued was Robert Dugger, a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill. He was working at the hedge fund Tudor Investment Corp. as a political and global-risk analyst. Using his own money -- $250,000 so far -- Mr. Dugger started his own think tank and commissioned a paper by Mr. Heckman.

The 2004 paper argued that extending preschool to the four million children under 5 then living under the poverty line would produce a net benefit to the economy of more than $511 billion.

Disadvantaged children who start schooling early are more likely to attend college and "less likely to be teenage mothers and foster a new generation of deprived children," Mr. Heckman wrote.

The paper helped persuade Mr. Dugger's boss, hedge fund magnate Paul Tudor Jones, to contribute $1 million. Mr. Dugger's project has grown from a handful of people sitting around a table in his office to a group of more than 1,000 who gather -- some in person, some on a phone link -- in Washington for two-hour presentations monthly. Pew has kicked in $1 million.

Some remain cautious about the research. Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, says the studies used to calculate rates of return are too small to be "a basis for generalizing what the economic benefits would be if this was rolled out in various states."

Still, the experience of New York state shows how the publicity is having a practical impact...

...Economist Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research says pre-K benefits not only the poor but also middle-class children who are at risk of falling behind in school. "Most of the children who drop out of school or fail a grade are middle-class," says Mr. Barnett.

The University of Chicago's Mr. Heckman counters, "Scarce resources should be directed to the problem areas." Despite his role in pushing the pre-K cause, Mr. Heckman cautions against overdoing it. "There's a great danger here that people are going to rush out and with blind enthusiasm endorse very superficial programs," he says.


And this retort from Richard Lee Colvin the Hechinger Institute:

WSJ Notes the National Trend Toward Pre-K

Leave it to the Wall Street Journal to label the national trend toward expanded public spending on pre-kindergarten for what it is: "one of the most significant expansions in public education in the 90 years since World War I, when kindergarten first became standard in American schools."

The Journal's front page article Thursday did what the paper does so nicely: allow a reader who hasn't been following a developing trend to drop in and get a good sense of who the players are, why they're doing what they're doing, the obstacles, and controversies, and what lies ahead. The story notes, for example, that not everyone is on board with the push for "universal" public preschool. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, for example, warns about overdoing preschool and says that "scarce resources should be directed to the problem areas."

Mr. Murdoch, don't mess with success, ok?

Full disclosure: the Journal article describes the important role The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Trusts' director of education, Susan Urahn, have played in fueling the national movement to expand public spending on preschool. The article also mentions that the Hechinger Institute is a grantee, and that our role is to help journalists become knowledgeable about the issues surrounding pre-k. As I always say, though, we're not advocates for anything other than good journalism about education.

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