Universal Pre-K: The Argument Against

Strategies for the Revolution of American Public Education

By Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D.

During his campaign, President Obama pledged universal pre-kindergarten education, stating that not only do we need to enroll more children in pre-K, but should do so at an even earlier age.  Since we continue to move the age lower and lower for mandatory education, one has to wonder if the government will be waiting outside delivery rooms to take charge of newborns in the near future.  

According to Texas Public Policy Foundation, “Implicit in the push for expanded pre-K and kindergarten is the presumption that the state should take more responsibility for educating young children.”  

As they are on many issues, politicians and business leaders are out of touch with the American people about early childhood education.

The fundamental debate is not really about the expense or effectiveness of pre-K or kindergarten.

Rather the issue is who should bear the responsibility for young children. 

Americans hold that we are endowed with “certain unalienable rights” including the primacy of the family over the state.  Thus state intrusion into early childhood education is in direct conflict with our freedom.

In a study by the public opinion research organization, Public Agenda, more than 70% of parents with young children believe it is their responsibility to pay the costs of caring for their children, while only 1 in 4 prefers government mandated universal pre-K.

To promote their agenda, proponents tout the benefits of  an American universal, national pre-K program similar to those of many European countries.

They praise the well-known French universal pre-K that enrolls nearly all three- and four-year- olds.  However, U.S. fourth graders outperform their counterparts in France and in most other developed countries.  

Proponents also claim that pre-K has lasting benefits for student achievement but the facts refute this claim.

Even though enrollment of four-year-olds in pre-K has increased from 16% in 1965 to 69% in 2004, one would expect student performance to increase as well.  However, research shows that academic gains “fade out” by third grade.

By the middle school years student achievement is on a downward spiral.  At 12th grade the U.S. is outranked by 86% of developed countries in math and 71% in science!

Yet Sandra Feldman, president emeritus of the American Federation of Teachers, in a speech to the AFT QUEST Conference on July 12, 2001, contended that the United States “can’t afford not to” adopt a pre-K program similar to that of  France.

To garner support for their push to gain control of the child at an ever earlier age, proponents use information from studies with biases and flawed data.  According to these studies, the state will actually make money through a widespread pre-K program.

A May 2006 study by Texas A&M University claims that, for every $1 of taxes invested in universal pre-K, there will be a return of $3.50 to Texas communities through lower welfare and juvenile incarceration costs and higher future wages.

Proponents also cite findings from other studies including the Perry Preschool project, which claims a return of $7 or more for each taxpayer dollar invested. 

Politicians and business leaders have leaped onto the bandwagon, citing these discredited studies as ample evidence that it makes prudent fiscal sense to implement universal early childhood government intervention.

It seems only prudent that they do further research themselves before committing taxpayers to more government programs and more public debt and more taxes.

The Texas A&M University study was patterned after the 2005 RAND study of the Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC).   However, there were several fundamental differences between the CPC study and the hypothetical universal program for Texas.   

The CPC study used only the most disadvantaged children in Chicago and required that parents participate in the learning experience.

In later CPC programs parents were not required to participate in their children’s learning and their children did not perform as well as those whose parents had been involved. 

The CPC study did not include mainstream children yet it was assumed they would benefit from pre-K also.

Since parental training and involvement will not be a requirement in universal pre-K, the claim for better student performance cannot be substantiated. 

The Texas A&M study also omitted and/or underestimated tangible costs.

Texas Public Policy Foundation states that, “Overestimation of certain benefits and omission of some costs cast doubt upon the $3.50 return-per-dollar estimate so frequently cited in discussions of universal pre-k in Texas.”

In spite of the Perry Preschool project being widely cited as evidence that universal pre-K brings a return on the taxpayer’s investment dollar  — $7 or more — it has been determined that this study was compromised by significant sampling and methodological errors.  

According to Ed Zigler, Head Start co-founder, the sampling used was not representative of children in general and possibly not even of the majority of economically disadvantaged children.

Although this study was conducted from 1962-1965, no other study in the more than 40 years following has produced results as dramatic as those of the Perry Preschool project.

After examining the results of several studies, including Chicago Parent Child Program, Perry Preschool, and Head Start, Texas Public Policy Foundation concluded that the “widespread adoption of pre-k is unlikely to improve student achievement.”

A more recent study is the Tennessee pre-K project by Vanderbilt University Peabody Research Institute and presented on March 4, 2011.  Children from low-income families were included in the study.  It was found that children who attended state-funded Pre-K classes in Tennessee “gained an average of 82 percent more on early literacy and math skills than comparable children who did not have access to Pre- Kindergarten programs.”

Nearly all pre-K studies target disadvantaged children, yet it is generalized that benefits will accrue to mainstream children also.

However, according to David Weikart, past president of the foundation that was responsible for the Perry Preschool project, “For middle-class youngsters with a good economic basis, most programs are not able to show much in the way of difference.”

The Rand Corporation in 2005 published a paper that stated there has been only one study on the long-term benefits of pre-K for non-disadvantaged children. It was concluded that “children in programs not targeted to disadvantaged populations were no better off than those not attending any preschool.”

Although proponents tout the social benefit for young children, research findings conclude that with early formal training, mainstream children were more often likely to exhibit bullying and aggressive behavior and lacked self control and cooperation.  

The promise of politicians and business leaders is that universal pre-K is affordable and cost efficient. 

Most American children already attend pre-school, including private pre-school and childcare.   For those who cannot afford it, there are subsidies and free programs, such as Head Start. 

In Texas 55% of four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K — either in state pre-K, Head Start, or public special education.  Together with those who are enrolled in private preschool, 85% of four-year-old Texans are enrolled in some type of center based care.

With universal pre-K, Texas taxpayers would pay for every child — 45% more on the public dole!

How can this be affordable and cost efficient?

It is a certainty that universal pre-K, like all government run programs, will be far greater in cost than the estimates.

Making taxpayers pay for another government run program is fiscally and politically suicidal!

Our politicians and business leaders must weigh all of the evidence, including the findings of the Head Start program, a program sold by President Johnson on the promise that early intervention could prevent poverty, delinquency, and welfare status.

For decades we have seen all too many reforms that promised to improve our education system. 

The routine is well known by now — new research studies are published and educators, politicians, and business leaders go into knee-jerk mode.  Without weighing all of the evidence and further research, new programs are set up with more expense and more debt incurred as people flock to jump on the latest bandwagon.  No one wants to be left off when those “in the know” or in prominent positions are leading the charge.

If our children who are not at risk perform better with parental nurturing and education in early childhood  —  currently decentralized and flexible  —  but perform poorly after a few years in government run schools, why should parents be forced to turn their early childhood education over to the government?

And why should taxpayers have to fund another government run program — universal pre-K?  



Do Small Kids Need Big Government:  A Look at the Research Behind Government Preschool by Darcy Olsen with Jamie Story, Texas Public Policy Foundation (Feb. 2008).

Myths and Facts About Pre-K in Texas by Jamie Story, Texas Public Policy Foundation (Jan. 2007).

The Effects of Pre-kindergarten and Pre-kindergarten Curricula on Emergent Math and Literacy Skills, H.G. Hofer, Peabody Research Institute, Vanderbilt University (2011).

The author can be contacted by chaynes@teapartyforkids.org.


  1. AJ–Get rid of Head Start and all the rest. France has school age down to 2 years old and they are dumber than a box of rocks. Go back to principled teaching and Da## the PC stuff. All this feel good stuff has gotten us hip deep in crap. Go back to Christian and Godly values and Parental control—Da## the State and their control. Our hope and success does not rest with a Government, a King, a President or Congressman or any Legislative body. Pure and simple —- Godly and Christian values is our only hope.

    Read the curses that befall a nation when you turn away from Godly values (Deuteronomy 16)—-Some of the curses are already befalling us—Time to go back to what made us successful.

  2. Why is it that apparently intelligent people believe that Pre-K programs are a failure because the gains exhibited in the first few years of public school are lost? Does anyone stop to think about what has changed between Pre-K and the third or fourth grade?

    As a former high school teacher, former school board member and administrator for an organization with Pre-K programs, it is my belief that the problem is not with the Pre-K programs, it is at least in part a problem with the public school system.

    Pre-K programs like Head Start address the whole child and focus on working with the family and making the family a part of process. Most school systems, public or private, only address the educational component. Teachers and school boards complain about lack of parental involvement, then make it as difficult as possible for parents to be involved, complain prolifically about parental interference, and make it known that some parents just aren’t worthy human beings. If all schools addressed the physical, emotional, social, nutritional and educational development of the child and involved the entire household, those studies might show a completely different story as the child advanced through the educational system.

    Even good teachers frequently fail to sufficiently support the total child, especially when the teacher has little or no support in the educational network.

  3. Mike you are absolutely right. All young married couples want now is a free Daycare. They put on a good show about how they are concerned about their CHILDREN when actually most young parents could care less or they wouldn’t let someone else raise their kids. Sounds like a bunch of young DEMOCRATS with all their concern about children, old folks and small animals when actually they care only about themselves and would throw all this and us under the bus if their lifestyle was threatened.

  4. “At 12th grade the U.S. is outranked by 86% of developed countries in math and 71% in science!” – yes outranked by the very countries that HAVE pre-K programs. What you quote in this article actually demonstrates why more widely available Pre-K is needed.

    It would also seem that someone with a PhD should be more aware of the actually age when school attendance is mandatory. It is not 3 or 4 or infancy as this article suggests – in most states it is actually 7. There is no infringement on a family’s right to chose where their child is educated and cared for in their early years – this is a movement requesting more options for families that want them and don’t have them.

    Research is tricky, and there are multiple ways to interpret data – it would seem this article does exactly what it accuses the opposition of doing.

  5. CW, once again you are spot on! I would like to add one item to excellent post. That is, too many parents are looking for “babysitters” for their children, and they attempt to find that in our classrooms. You are absolutely correct in attempting to brainwash these children at an early age. CW, if people would only quit trying to “keep up with the Joneses” this world would be a better place with at least one parent home until the children reach proper school age.

    The Government would LOVE to control the children when they are MOST IMPRESSIONABLE.
    THE TRUTH is AMERICA is governed by the legions of Satan and the majority of people are looking to sell their souls and give away their children to slavery for promises that will never be filled.

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