In a 2006 United Way poll, nearly three-fourths of Texans supported fully-funded pre-kindergarten for all students, regardless of income.
But in June, 61% of Californians voted against an initiative to create universal public preschool there.
Since universal pre-K was defeated so handily by voters in California, why would people in the more conservative state of Texas be so seemingly supportive of the idea?
While the concept of giving every child the opportunity to attend preschool appears laudable, in reality it is an expensive notion that results in little but an expanded version of the struggling K-12 education bureaucracy and a massive financial hit to taxpayers.
When faced with the decision, California voters realized that universal pre-K isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
First, California voters realized universal pre-K is expensive and inefficient. California enrolls 66% of four-year-olds in public or private preschool. States with universal pre-K typically enroll about 70%, so California would have likely only placed an additional 4% of students in pre-K. Considering the $2.4 billion allocated to the initiative, taxpayers would have spent $100,000 per additional student! And this price tag would likely grow; a universal pre-K program that began eight years ago in Quebec now costs 33 times more than anticipated.
In Texas, the increase in pre-K participation would likely be even smaller. About 50% of four-year-olds already participate in state-funded pre-K or special education. Another 11% participate in the federal Head Start program, and an estimated 35% are enrolled in private preschool, although there may be some overlap in the programs. Still, a staggeringly high number – up to 95% – of Texas four-year-olds participate in some sort of preschool program, and it is unlikely that universal pre-K would increase this number.
California voters also realized pre-K may not be the best option for all children. Studies claiming positive returns on spending in pre-K largely include only low-income, minority, and at-risk children. In fact, one study examining the effects of preschool for non-disadvantaged students found no long-term benefits. Research out of England suggests that the best environment for most young children is at home with a parent.
And a 2005 Stanford-UC Berkeley study concluded that center-based preschool can actually have a negative effect on social skills, especially for low-income children. Despite these findings, only 8.4% of the funding in California would have gone to enroll high-risk students in preschool. California voters apparently decided it would be better to target limited taxpayer resources to those students only, rather than wasting more than 90% of the proposed funding on kids who would receive no academic benefit.
Finally, California voters realized that universal public pre-K would likely decimate the private sector, shutting down thousands of private preschools and actually reducing choices for parents. While a system could be structured to include private providers, it is unknown what effect increased government regulation (and increased costs) would have on those providers.
According to one estimate, universal pre-K would cost Texas taxpayers $2.3 billion – all for a program that has failed to demonstrate long-term positive effects in other states and countries.
Just as in California, universal pre-K is a losing proposition for Texas taxpayers, parents, and children.
Jamie Story is an education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit research institute based in Austin.