(Originally posted at Sound Politics)
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray unveiled his universal preschool plan for the city yesterday. Families making twice the poverty level would receive free preschool valued at $11,000 and all other families would receive subsidies, including the extremely wealthy or “1 percent”. Naturally, the costs of this $58 million plan will be paid for with a tax increase.
In Seattle, more than 60% of preschool age kids already attend preschool or formal child care and many parents of those that don’t have consciously made the decision not to. So it’s not immediately clear there’s a widespread problem requiring subsidies for all parents of preschoolers and tax increases for everyone.
More importantly, as I wrote in a blog post last month entitled “Universal preschool – a universally bad idea“, there’s scant evidence that there’s any benefit from universal preschool programs, whereas there are massive costs in terms of both dollars and the impact of government intrusion into a market that is already serving parents and children very well.
As Murray’s proposal states, only providers that meet the city’s requirements will receive funding. Today there’s a rich variety of different providers a parent can choose from to meet the needs of their particular children. Inevitably, preschool models will shift in order to be eligible for funding, reducing choice, experimentation and options for parents.
You can already see the cost of state regulations on Seattle preschools on display daily. For example, preschools that have adopted technology to better serve parents and their businesses keep track of attendance with software. But state regulators require them to have parents sign their children in and out on paper. So every day, hundreds of parents sign their preschoolers in to preschools at computer terminals and a second time on paper, then repeat the process when they collect their kids at the end of the day. If you like today’s regulations, just wait for those that come with universal preschool!
Supporters of universal pre-K education point to a couple of studies that have shown benefits. My blog post went into the details of those studies and why they don’t apply to universal preschool. Murray’s proposal to spend $11,000 annually per student is barely more than half what was spent on one program often cited, which also included 1.5 hours per week of in-home visits by teachers, and it’s a fraction of the $95,000 per student of the other most frequently cited study. Studies of programs in places like Georgia suggest that there are no measurable benefits from universal pre-K programs within a year or two of entering kindergarten.
As I concluded in last month’s post: “While it’s easy to argue that universal preschool is an idea that no one should support, a case could be made for providing funding to low-income parents who can’t afford but would like to send their children to preschool. Studies do suggest…that there are longer term benefits from enrolling the poorest and most vulnerable in pre-K. But that’s very different from asking…taxpayers to also subsidize children from families of the wealthy and middle class, especially those that would attend absent any subsidies.”