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Pre-school bait and switch

03/11/04 12:00AM By John McClaughry
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(Host) Commentator John McClaughry has reservations about a proposal to establish universal public pre-school that is under consideration in the legislature this year.

(McClaughry) This year's major social policy initiative will be a dramatic taxpayer-funded expansion of "preschool education". The leading advocacy groups are the Child Care Fund of Vermont and the Vermont Business Roundtable. They are mounting an all-out campaign to persuade legislators that quintupling the current state spending on preschool programs is a wise use of Act 68 tax dollars.

The Child Care Fund proposes to create a "public private partnership" called "Vermont's Alliance for Children". This would consist of a state-favored nonprofit organization controlling "local entities" - that's the private part - spending millions of taxpayer's dollars -that's the public part. Children would attend public preschools ten hours a week, 36 weeks a year, at an annual cost to the Education Fund of $21 million.

What's the evidence for the value of preschool programs? Well, here is where you have to watch out for the bait and switch.

Three famous experiments with preschool children in fact achieved some positive results in terms of later child performance. But the participants in the three studies were almost all seriously at risk minority children from dysfunctional single parent welfare homes. The Perry project was deemed a success because by age 19 the Perry preschoolers clearly fared better than their peers in the control group. Only 33% had dropped out of high school, only 31% had been arrested, and the 25 girls had only experienced 17 pregnancies.

The amount and cost of the resources consumed per child were staggering. For instance, in the North Carolina project the researchers took charge of the seriously at-risk children not at age 3 years, but at age 5 months, with an initial ratio of one teacher to three children. The annual per pupil cost in 2004 dollars was over $52,000.

Pouring the resources to the most desperate children can hardly help but produce some benefits, and most people would probably agree that it's an inescapable public cost. But to proclaim "4 to 1" or "7 to 1" rates of return for investment in a program for all children is just not honest. There is no academic study that links costs and benefits for a preschool program other than a program serving the most desperately at risk children.

Nonetheless, the legislature is witnessing a full court press from Big Business, the state's most expansion-minded bureaucracy, and Child Welfare Liberals, supported by the state's largest Union, to get the legislature to launch a major new program, of high cost and dubious value, and bill those costs to the Education Fund, two thirds of whose revenues come from the property tax.

Somewhere somebody has to get real about balancing very significant taxpayer costs with largely fuzzy, often distressingly transient, and for most children unnecessary benefits.

This is John McClaughry - thanks for listening.

John McClaughery is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.
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