Commentary: Universal Pre-K Is A Problem, Not a Solution (February, 2017)

By Rob RoperRob Roper

Vermont has been actively expanding taxpayer funded universal Pre-K since 2007 (Act 62). The claims back then and the claims today haven’t changed. Advocates promise that in the long run, these programs will prove great for kids and taxpayers! But ten years later, as we’re looking at an even more dramatic and expensive expansion of these programs, we have to ask if what we’ve done so far has lived up to the hype.

At a recent meeting of the House Education Committee, chairman David Sharpe (D-Bristol) noted that there has been, among other issues, an increase in number of disruptive students in the classroom. This prompted him to inquire, “I applaud your [Pre-K advocates] efforts,” said Sharpe, “but are we creating these agencies to replace parents because we’ve created a culture where mom and dad get up every day and go do work and aren’t a part of their kids’ lives? Did we create this problem by creating a culture where children are without parents for so much of their life?”


It’s easy to buy into the pro-pre-k hype. It sounds so wonderful. The Blue Ribbon Commission for Affordable Child Care is the latest to parrot the promise that “Every dollar spent on high-quality early care and learning programs yields a return on investment that ranges from $4 – $9.” Who wouldn’t want that? But this is, in the vernacular of the day, fake news.

The Blue Ribbon study making this claim (as well as everybody else) cites in a footnote the Center on the Developing Child (2009), which in turn cites three original studies: The High Scope/Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project, and the Nurse Family Partnership.

But here’s the catch: These studies have absolutely zero relationship to the programs being proposed in Vermont, nor did they serve populations even remotely similar to those that Vermont’s programs serve. To state or imply that Vermont pre-k programs would yield similar results is flat out dishonest.

For example, the Perry Preschool Project only involved 123 (just 58 of whom received services, 65 were in the control group) African American kids from economically disadvantaged households, at “high risk for school failure,” with IQs between 70 and 85. It is dishonest to imply that mainstream Vermont kids in a less intensive, universal program like the one we have in Vermont would respond in the same way.

Similarly, the Abecedarian study was limited to 111 kids, 57 of whom received services. Again, these were all kids identified as being “high risk” based on family income, etc. and the program was birth to five, 6-8 hours a day five days a week with a child teacher ratio of 1:3 to 1:6 – nothing remotely resembling the universal, 10 hour a week program for 3-4 year olds we have in Vermont!

The Nurse Family Partnership isn’t even an early childhood education program, it’s home healthcare program.

As the High Scope website specifically cautions: “The findings of the High/Scope Perry Preschool study and similar studies would apply ONLY [emphasis added] to children served by these programs who are reasonably similar to children living in poverty or otherwise at risk of school failure. (Pg.13) Therefore, when our politicians, advocates and educators use these studies to justify investment universal early education programs for a majority of mainstream kids – and when our media reports these claims without challenge – they are all, at best, misleading the public.

Meanwhile, relevant studies of programs of similar size and scope to those Vermont is implementing do not show meaningful benefit to kids, and one even indicates possible harm.

Vanderbilt University recently evaluated Tennessee’s Pre-K program (3000+ subjects) and found that students who attended the state’s pre-k program did worse by third grade than students who had been denied access to the program via lottery.

Similarly, the Head Start Impact Study (5000 subjects) done by the U.S. Agency for Health & Human Services finds, “the advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of first grade.”

Vermont has been expanding universal preschool programs in earnest for a decade. Since then, the classes of fourth graders who have matriculated through the system having had greater access to “high quality” early education have seen their standardized test scores DROP. The data doesn’t exist (or I’m unaware of it) to determine if this is causal or coincidental, but it is certainly worth serious investigation before we pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a program that may be doing more harm than good.

– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe. 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt February 25, 2017 at 1:34 pm

The 10 hour/week program is pretty transparently only intended to be utilized by families the have a driver who does not work. This is due to the transitions intentionally built into the programs, and the hours of service. For instance, programs typically run from 8:15-3:15 less than 4 days each week, with parts of 3 days representing the subsidized 10 hour curriculum, and the remaining time serving as daycare. The education establishment has also monopolized the programs eligible to receive the subsidy, leaving working parents with few choices.

As best I can tell the program is a NEA sub project designed to 1) create more demand for pre-k early education teachers by getting stay-at-home moms to enroll their pre-k kids in the program;and 2) try to apply behavior theraphy to at-risk toddlers at home with troubled unemployed single mothers to try to reduce the disrubtiveness of these kids when they reach elementary school. The latter objective has some appeal, but as this story points out, the efficacy of the governmental solution is highly suspect.


H. Brooke Paige February 25, 2017 at 8:15 pm


You have missed the purpose of the universal pre-K programs, is not intended to raise the long term performance of public schools children, rather to provide full employment for VT-NEA members at risk of losing their well paid jobs as a result of declining student enrollment.

The Head Start study conducted by Westat on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found, “that there were effects favoring Head Start children on some outcome variables at the end of the Head Start year. However, these impacts did not persist. Both in the kindergarten and first grade follow-up data, released in 2010, and the third grade follow-up data, released in December of 2012, there were no reliable differences in outcomes for children who won the lottery to attend Head Start vs. those who lost that lottery and served as the control group. In the words of the authors of the report, “by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts … in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children. The advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of first grade.”

If there are no long term advantages to pre-K, it is reasonable to conclude that the advocates are looking to protect the VT-NEA (and possibly provide very costly “free” daycare at taxpayer expense)!

The Brooking’s Institutes report on pre-K (Head Start) performance can be found at:


Doug Richmond March 1, 2017 at 7:51 pm

First they tax us to distraction. Both parent must work, but in effect one parents tries to support a family, and the other parent tries to pay the taxes and fees. Both parents work their butts off, come home exhausted to meal prep and closthes washing. Both need a good car to get to work, Taxes approx quadrupple, triple? due to being “rich,” and since they feel so stressed out, lets get takeout, and go on an expensive vacation. This is far from Ozzie and Harriet, raising their two sons.

Then they take over our health care. They refuse to allow “catastropic coverage”, or self insurance, but they charge so much for mandatory insurance with huge deductibles – that the family cannot go to the doctor when they should.

Then they take our children, from cradle to ……………

………… Sounds familiar


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