Why More Spending on 4K Education Won’t Work


When it comes to public education the prevailing opinion among those in power is: More is better. More money expended and more time spent in the system can only yield exponentially better outcomes for children and South Carolina. This sort of logic has led to $26 million in new 4-year-old kindergarten (4K) spending in this year’s state budget. As in other areas of public education, however, more funding doesn’t guarantee better results.

Nor does more time spent in the school system. While students already receive state-funded schooling for thirteen years from Kindergarten to 12th grade, some argue that this isn’t enough.

This line of thinking has given us the national Head Start program and several pre-school programs in South Carolina, beginning with the passage of the Education Improvement Act in 1984. Unfortunately for proponents of these programs, and early education in general, there has been little evidence that pre-k education produces any significant results lasting into high school or adulthood.

There are multiple publicly funded early education initiatives in the Palmetto State.

  • Head Start is a federally funded early education program that primarily serves 3 to 5 year olds from low income families.
  • The first state financed pre-K program, established in 1984, required South Carolina school districts to provide half-day programs for four-year-old children, though many now have full-day programs. This program also targets “at risk” children.
  • Following a 2006 court decision, the state established the Child Development Education Pilot Program (CDEPP) to provide full-day 4K in 37 school districts.
  • The state also provides grants and oversight of various early education programs through the South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness program, established in 1999.

These programs combined provided publicly financed 4K to 51 percent of four-year-old children in South Carolina in 2010-2011, according to the Institute for Child Success (32 percent EIA-created pre-school, 10 percent Head Start, 9 percent CDEPP). Public spending on these programs was totaled at $135 million in 2010-2011 by First Steps. A significant portion of these were federal or local. In fact, First Steps reported that non CDEPP districts spent $48.69 million in 2010-2011 on early education initiatives, and CDEPP districts spent another $10.1 million.

As for state expenditures, state-only funding for EIA public pre-school and the CDEPP has averaged $36.4 million from 2009-2010 through 2012-2013 (excluding what appears to be a special $11.8 million CDEPP appropriation outside the usual line items in 2012-2013). When we factor in grant providing agencies such as First Steps, the average annual spending from 2009-2010 through 2012-2013 rises to $50.6 million. (These figures are 2013 dollars.)

Bang for the buck?

So what exactly are we getting for the millions of dollars expended every year on early childhood education initiatives?

On the national level, studies by the Department of Health and Human Services (including a study released in 2012) have found that the Head Start program provides no lasting benefits to participants beyond the third grade. Researchers at the Cato Institute have further determined that the gap in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores for 17-year-olds whose parents are high school dropouts versus 17-year-olds whose parents are college graduates failed to shrink from 1980 to 2004. (This is the gap early education was supposed to help shrink.) Further research from Cato shows that nationally NAEP scores in science, math, and reading for 17 year olds have flat-lined from 1970 to 2008. To help understand this timeframe, Head Start was created in 1965 and by 2001 39 states have established state sponsored preschool.

At the state level, the data isn’t much more encouraging. The most recent report from the South Carolina State Board of Education on some of the preschool programs enacted by the Education Improvement Act shows very small gains for program participants in elementary and middle school, and provides no data on participants’ high school performance. The study compared the performance of 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th graders who did and did not participate in state early education programs on the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests (PACT) in reading and mathematics. One of the key metrics used was the percent of students from each group who scored proficient or advanced on either the math or reading PACT tests. In all grades surveyed and in both subjects, the percent of participants receiving proficient or advanced scores was higher than the percent of non-participants receiving these scores. However, in none of the grades or tests was the percentage difference more than 2.6 percent, and frequently the percent difference was 1 percent or less.

Looking more broadly at our states aggregate NAEP scores for both the 4th and 8th grade for the years 2003 to 2011, we see little change in the percent of children scoring below basic in each grade in both reading and math NAEP tests. From 2003 to 2011, in neither of the grades or tests has the percent of students scoring below basic fallen more than 3 percent. Over the same period, South Carolina’s national ranking for performance on these tests has fallen for each grade and each area (South Carolina’s 4th grade reading rank fell by 17 places). While multiple factors obviously come into play here, it would seem preschool programs alone are not lifting statewide performance on these assessments in any significant way, even though an increasingly higher percentage of South Carolina children are participating in the programs.

What about high school?

While elementary and middle school gains seem minimal, we might still ask if any positive effects of state early education program participation can be seen in high school level assessments. No studies we could find traced high school assessment scores of program participants, but we can still take a broad look at South Carolina’s average SAT scores before and after program participants took the test.

The first program participants can be expected to have taken the SATs around 1998, giving us a 15-year period of data to look at until 2012; this can be contrasted with the 15-year period immediately preceding 1998, the years from 1983 to 1997. In the 15-year period prior to the first state early education program participants taking the SAT, beginning with the base year 1983, the average reading score in South Carolina increased 2 points and the average math score increased 17 points. In the 15-year period including program participants, beginning with the base year 1998, the average reading score fell 9 points and the average math score increased by only 2 points.

For the 15-year period prior to early education program participants taking the SATs average scores increased more than the 15-year period that included program participants. While neither the shifts before or after program participants taking the SAT are especially significant in size, we can at minimum safely say that state-sponsored early education programs haven’t improved general SAT performance over a period when program participation was increasingly common for South Carolina Children.

While this is only one metric, there has been little to no evidence showing early education programs have a lasting positive effect on participants into their high school years. Research institutions as diverse as the conservative Heritage Foundation and the left-leaning Brookings Institute have highlighted numerous studies that show any positive effects of preschool programs rarely last beyond elementary school. Both institutions also point out that these failings apply to state-level as well as national programs, and that the few studies usually mentioned to justify state-sponsored preschool programs (the Perry and Abecedarian projects) were highly targeted multi-year intensive programs that are unlikely to be replicated on a large scale due to costs and other resource constraints.

Finally, just as federal government studies have found issues with the federal Head Start program, a recent study by South Carolina’s Legislative Audit Council found numerous problems with the grant administering First Steps program. First Steps has allegedly been suffering from numerous problems such as overpaying some of its partner organizations and underpaying others, making board decisions without a quorum of the board present, and failing adequately to measure or exaggerating the benefits for children who participate in programs funded by First Steps.

The bottom line? Not counting local spending and special one-time appropriations, the state is spending an average of $50.6 million a year on a program with few if any lasting benefits. Further, what little benefits these programs may produce is likely muted by a change-resistant and stagnant school system with a graduation rate in the bottom two quintiles of the nation. Early education programs in South Carolina have proved to be an ineffective supplement for a school system that is in need of far deeper reform. If legislators truly wish to help children across the state, they should scale back efforts on a program of doubtful benefit and instead focus on programs that expand school choice – a policy that has both saved taxpayer dollars and improved educational outcomes.

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