Research Shows: Preschool Edition 2

The Iowa House Democrats are back again with more preschool research in their March 15th newsletter.  Here’s the key paragraph from the newsletter:

A new cost-benefit analysis indicates that up to $16 is returned long-term for every $1 invested in a high-quality early childhood program. Although, the cost of preschool is generally about $3,500 to $4,000 per child annually, big long-term payoffs on their initial investment will benefit taxpayers as well as student achievement.

Apparently, all preschool research leads back to the Perry Preschool Project, which is one of the programs used for this cost-benefit analysis.  But here’s what is missing from the House Democrats article:

  • The “payoff” or return comes from reduced spending later on special education, remedial education, fewer arrests, and fewer social social services.  Which means, presumably, that there isn’t much of a return from paying for preschool for children who are at low risk for needing special or remedial education services or social services, or are unlikely to be arrested.
  • The economist who presented this information at the capitol, Rob Grunewald, notes that “Based on costs used in previous studies and current programs for at-risk children, we estimate that total resources needed to fund an annual scholarship for a high-quality early-childhood-development program for an at-risk 3- or 4-year old would be about $10,000 to $15,000 for a full-day program that included parent mentoring.”  It isn’t clear that spending $3,500 to $4,000 per child for ten hours per week of preschool will generate the same returns as more intensive (and thus more expensive) programs.

In other words, this research doesn’t support expanding a universal, ten hour per week preschool program.  It supports funding a carefully targeted, intensive preschool program for at-risk children.

In a related vein, this week Scott McLeod takes on the Iowa DE and “evidence-based” educational policy.