Should Kansas expand K-12 to E-12? That’s a proposal being advocated in some quarters. But before Kansans expand the existing school system, they ought to consider some evidence.
Writing for the Washington Policy Center, Liv Finne looks at Early Learning Proposals in Washington State. The report starts out with the number of children in institutional care of some sort (roughly 23 percent of children under kindergarten age) and the cost of that care (median cost in 2005: $8,840 for an infant; $7,540 for a toddler; $6,916 for a preschooler). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation identifies one in four children under age 5 to be at risk to fail socially and academically for a variety of factors.
Finne addresses and then critiques four major arguments in favor of government-based programs for young children.
Will it improve their neurological functioning and thus contribute to a better education? It’s a lot more complicated than advocates argue. Children can bounce back from rough beginnings more than we think, while institutional care, even of the best kind, is not as good as we think. A key point here is that a better use of resources would be to focus on children already in institutional care, rather than expanding the number of children in that care.
Will it save money by avoiding welfare and criminal justice costs? Perhaps–but much of the enthusiasm for early childhood education calls for universal programs, making overall spending on pre-k programs less cost-effective than advertised.
Do the Perry, Abecedarian and Chicago studies prove that intense pre-K programs can compensate for early risk factors? Again, not necessarily. These programs are more intense than anything advocated in Washington, and they’re rather expensive, limiting the likelihood that they will be replicated on a large scale. In addition, some factors involved in the programs, such as improved parent-child interaction, don’t necessarily need a program like these three.
Finally, does institutional care provide the social and emotional skills required for learning at school? More likely, parent-child interaction produces those skills. Indeed, participation full-day kindergarten is associated with less, not more preparedness towards learning.
One major problem with using pre-K as the skeleton key to unlock educational success is that such programs are prone to fade-out: that is, their benefits tend to disappear over time.
COSTS OF INSTITUTIONAL CARE
The costs of institutional care, the report suggests, can be personal (increased aggression, for example), academic (undermining natural curiosity) and financial . The financial costs, assuming the ideal setting as envisioned by the National Institute for Early Education Research, come out to $11,000 per child–about as much as the K-12 system costs in Kansas.
Any program, the report suggests, should be limited to low-income families and voluntary, with families able to transfer children between programs as the need requires.