Indiana Gov. Mike Pence reversed a previous position and announced on Thursday that he will seek federal money to help expand a pre-kindergarten program for disadvantaged children.
"I am committed to opening the doors of opportunity to the most vulnerable children in our state," the Republican governor wrote in a letter to the U.S Department of Health and
Human Services, inquiring about federal funding.
Gov. Mike Pence
Pence strongly advocated for the state's existing On My Way Pre-K pilot program, which was launched across five counties in 2015 and has since sent about 2,300 low-income children to preschool at annual cost of about $10 million.
But many early education supporters were surprised at the time when Pence, whose name was being floated as a possible GOP presidential candidate, announced he would not seek $80 million in federal pre-kindergarten funding amid lobbying from religious conservatives, tea party groups and a network of home schoolers opposed to accepting the federal money.
Since then, the state's pre-K program has proven popular, though the majority of families who applied have been turned away because demand has outstripped funding.
At the time, Pence said his administration decided not to seek federal funding because it would have required "us to expand our pre-K pilot before it is even up and running."The Governor's position is that it would have been foolish to commit the state to taking federal dollars until the state saw how the pre-K pilot program was working. Contrary to the Democrats' claim, that is a reasonable position.
The problem though with taking federal money is that those dollars come with tremendous strings attached. Although only about 7% of the dollars spent on public school K-12 education in the United States comes from the federal government, the feds use that miniscule funding level as leverage to force local schools to comply with an assortment of requirements, including most recently the Obama administration's restroom mandate.
But there is a second problem with more tax dollars being spent on pre-K. The credible studies out there indicate that pre-K programs offer no long-term benefits to students. The Department of Health and Human Services looked at the Head Start program and found no long term benefits. Vanderbilt University looked at Tennessee's pre-K program and found no long term benefits. The liberal Brookings Institute looked at pre-K programs and found no long term benefits...and criticized unscientific studies being used to tout early childhood education. I wrote about these studies in February of last year:
In voting to spend millions of dollars on pre-K, city-county councilors ignored studies showing early childhood education doesn't work. A independent and comprehensive study of Head Start commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services found that the program offers no long term benefits. Last year that 2005 study was updated to look at high v. low quality Head Start program and still found it made no difference...there was still no lasting impact.
Applying these analytic innovations to the experimental HSIS evaluation data, we find little evidence that Head Start’s impact varies systematically by the level of quality in the program for the available, limited quality measures. The frequency of statistically significant differences in impacts by quality levels is no greater than one would expect to observe by chance alone when no true differences exist. The one exception to this pattern is the discovery that, for 3-year-olds, lower exposure to academic activities is associated with more favorable short-run impacts on social development. There is almost no indication that either high or low quality Head Start in any dimension leads to Head Start impacts that last into third grade for either age cohort, consistent with the overall findings of the Head Start Impact Study not disaggregated by quality level.
A 2013 study by Vanderbilt University of Tennessee's voluntary pre-K program found the same thing:
The relatively large effects of TN‐VPK on the Woodcock Johnson achievement measures found at the end of the pre‐k year were greatly diminished and no longer statistically significant at the end of the kindergarten year. The only exception was a marginally significant negative effect on Passage Comprehension such that nonparticipants had higher scores at the end of the kindergarten year than TN‐VPK participants.Similarly, at the end of first grade, there were no statistically significant differences between TN‐VPK participants and nonparticipants on the Woodcock Johnson achievement measures with one exception. There was a significant difference that favored the nonparticipant group on the Quantitative Concept subscale.These diminished effects were not entirely unexpected in light of the findings in other longitudinal studies of the effects of early childhood programs on economically disadvantaged children. For preschool programs, a typical finding is that the cognitive effects are not sustained for very long after that initial year. Though none of those other studies investigated the effects of a single year of a scaled up state‐funded public pre‐k program, many involved even more intensive programs that nonetheless failed to show effects on cognitive achievement measures that were sustained for very long. Like TN‐VPK, however, these programs did not involve any continuous, focused support in subsequent years for sustaining the gains made during the initial program year.
Grover J. Whitehurst of the liberal Brookings Institute concerned about the "weak evidence behind the groundswell of advocacy for public investments in statewide universal pre-k" wrote an article in 2014 discussing the pre-K advocates' misuse of unscientific studies purporting to show the programs work:
I have never had any doubt a voluntary pre-K program would be popular with parents. Why wouldn't it be popular? It is, after all, essentially publicly funded day care. But taxpayers, who would balk at paying for day care, are easily duped into believing there are long-term educational and other benefits to pre-K when in fact the credible studies out there simply do not show those benefits exist.The previous tables and descriptions refer to 13 separate studies (including 3 similar studies of district programs and two similar studies of statewide programs in Oklahoma and Georgia). Of these 13, six report enduring and meaningful impacts beyond the pre-k year, four report null, negative, or very small positive impacts beyond the pre-k year, and three do not report findings beyond the pre-k year.It would be easy for someone without the training to carefully evaluate these studies or someone with a strong motive to advocate for the expansion of publicly funded pre-k to summarize this research by saying that the preponderance of evidence supports universal pre-k for four-year-olds. After all, of the 10 studies I’ve reviewed that have long-term follow-up, 60 percent report substantive positive outcomes. Libby Doggett, the Obama administration’s point person on Preschool for All, has been singing exactly this song at every opportunity:You have to look at the preponderance of the evidence. Better high school graduation rates, social and emotional stability, less crime and other results speak for themselves.But results do not speak for themselves. Rather, it is the combination of results and the research designs that produce them that do the speaking. And some of the combinations speak a lot louder than others.Not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial, and nearly all have serious limitations in external validity. In contrast, the only two studies in the list with both high internal and external validity (Head Start Impact and Tennessee) find null or negative impacts, and all of the studies that point to very small, null, or negative effects have high external validity.(Emphasis supplied.) In general, a finding of meaningful long-term outcomes of an early childhood intervention is more likely when the program is old, or small, or a multi-year intervention, and evaluated with something other than a well-implemented RCT. In contrast, as the program being evaluated becomes closer to universal pre-k for four-year-olds and the evaluation design is an RCT, the outcomes beyond the pre-k year diminish to nothing.I conclude that the best available evidence raises serious doubts that a large public investment in the expansion of pre-k for four-year-olds will have the long-term effects that advocates tout.