In his recent visit to El Paso, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talked up the Obama administration’s plan to grow their Preschool for All Initiative. The program would amount to $750 million in federal grants to states beginning in fiscal year 2014, and a total investment of $75 billion in pre-kindergarten expansion over the next ten years, money generated by a new tax on tobacco products (now nearly two dollars per pack of cigarettes).

 Ultimately, the cost would be shared by the federal government and participating states.

Pre-Kindergarten is a risky investment at best. Demonstrable academic gains are often subject to a phenomenon called the “fade-out effect”; beyond the 3rd grade, students who attended preschool don’t have any measurable academic advantage over those who did. New research suggests that fade may take place as soon as first grade. A recent Georgetown study further enforced the idea that early academic gains from pre-kindergarten do not last. From the authors:

We investigate the persistence of short-term effects of a high-quality school-based     prekindergarten program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We analyze third-grade reading and math scores for two cohorts of students eligible to participate in pre-kindergarten in 2000-01 and 2005-06, using boosted regression and propensity score matching to select a comparison group of local students who did not participate in the pre-K program. For the early cohort, we find no evidence of persistence of early gains. For the late cohort, we find that early gains persist through third grade in math but not reading, and for boys but not for girls.

That’s not much return on your pre-kindergarten investment. There is questionable social impact as well. Some studies suggest students who attend pre-K are more likely to exhibit aggression and bullying behavior than those who didn’t. The point here is not that preschool is necessarily “bad”, but rather that it is not a blanket positive.

If anything, expanding preschool access in a given community should be a local decision, not one laden with federal pressure or fiscal strings. Let parents and local voters decide whether pre-K is worthy investment, not Washington.