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Education Notebook on Education

June 30, 2009

June 30, 2009 | Education Notebook on Education

What Congress Can Learn from Georgia's Universal Preschool Program

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK:
What Congress Can Learn from Georgia's Universal Preschool Program

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By Lindsey Burke

President Obama is a strong supporter of universal preschool and has pledged to provide funding increases for federal early education programs. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working to deliver on his promise, pushing a number of bills aimed at promoting universal preschool.

Politicians who favor creating universal government-subsidized preschool have long pointed to Georgia as a model for such a program. Growing evidence suggests, however, that universal preschool isn't paying off for residents of the Peach State, which has had taxpayer-funded prekindergarten since 1995.

Georgia offers all four-year-old children the option of attending preschool on the taxpayer dime, and over half do so each year. But after 15 years, universal preschool has failed to close the achievement gap and ensure that all kids enter school ready to learn. If universal preschool were providing lasting benefits for participating children, one area where improvement would be evident would be on Georgia's fourth-grade reading scores, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But Georgia fourth-graders still lag behind the national average in reading despite the universal preschool initiative.

As part of the overall universal preschool program, Georgia taxpayers have spent over $216 million to improve the kindergarten readiness of low-income children through its Resource Coordination program. The program's primary mission is kindergarten readiness, but the initiative also provides supplementary services such as vision screening and community resources. State auditors have just revealed that the initiative has been unable to prove that it is helping children prepare for kindergarten.

According to the auditors, Georgia's Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) says that the Resource Coordination program reflects "research-driven strategies" creating a "family environment that promotes child development and kindergarten readiness." Yet auditors revealed that DECAL had not been measuring program impact or the program's progress in meeting established goals. As a result, state auditors were unable to find any concrete benefits of the Resource Coordination program.

This is the latest in a series of studies calling into question the effectiveness of Georgia's universal preschool program. Others have found similarly inconclusive results about Georgia's state-funded pre-K program overall. Researchers at Georgia State University released an informative -- yet inconclusive -- evaluation of the taxpayer-funded prekindergarten program in that state.

The Georgia State University study compared children attending the state-funded pre-K program with children attending other preschool programs and children attending no preschool program at all. The study found that in several areas children in the state pre-K program were outpaced by children in private programs and even by children who had not attended preschool.

The researchers also examined the effect of the Georgia pre-K program on the social behavior skills of preschoolers. Based on teacher ratings, the highest marks for good behavior and the ability to stay on task were given to those children who had not attended preschool.

The study also examined school readiness, an outcome advocates consistently tout as a reason to implement a large-scale universal preschool program. "Interestingly, the children who did not attend any preschool scored equal to or higher than the children who attended Georgia pre-K and Head Start on teacher ratings of readiness," the researchers note.

The report concludes that while children who attended the state pre-K program saw gains in areas such as problem-solving skills and expressive language, they were equal to national figures in other areas and actually fell relative to national norms in areas such as letter and word recognition. "The drop-off of skills relative to national norms for letter-word identification and receptive language is troublesome. It may be a leading indicator of the relatively low levels of proficiency that have been observed among Georgia's fourth graders in the National Assessment of Education[al] Progress," researchers concluded.

The bottom line is that after 15 years -- and hundreds of millions of tax dollars -- Georgia students have little to show for their universal pre-K program.

One might think that Georgia's costly experiment would give lawmakers on Capitol Hill reason to question their support for universal preschool. But instead, supporters are pushing forward, and Congress may consider a new federal preschool program as early as this summer.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have pledged to do "what works" for children when it comes to education. The recent news on Georgia's $216 million venture in kindergarten readiness and preschool services for low-income children -- and its universal preschool program in general -- is more proof that universal preschool is not the magic bullet proponents claim.

Given the ballooning budget deficit and the subsequent financial burden placed on the nation's children, American taxpayers should demand that Congress take a look at the evidence from states like Georgia before creating a new costly federal program and further indebting future generations. Georgia's experience shows that universal preschool is a poor use of precious taxpayer dollars.

Lindsey Burke is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org .

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