The risks of government-funded pre-K

A mega corporation is using skewed research to sell its product to gullible parents. The conglomerate claims to help kids, but its product actually has no effect — or a negative effect — on children’s cognitive skills and social behaviors.

It’s time to fire up the outrage machine, complete with congressional hearings, attorney general lawsuits and “shocked, shocked” politicians hamming it up in front of TV cameras. This company should be shamed, stigmatized and sued.

Wait — it’s not a corporation pushing this product? It’s the government that’s pulling the wool over the eyes of parents?

Forget the lawsuit. Let’s expand the program!

That program is pre-kindergarten. Folks from President Barack Obama to the liberal Children’s Advocacy Alliance Nevada have claimed something along the lines that “every dollar invested in pre-K has a $7 return on investment.”

Nevada bought in and has aggressively expanded pre-K over the past few years. The Clark County School District has 466 pre-K classes at 213 of its 217 elementary schools. The state is spending $50 million this year on so-called “Zoom” schools, which requires participating elementary schools to offer pre-K. Gov. Brian Sandoval previously accepted a federal matching grant that has doubled the number of pre-K spots in the state.

The program could expand again this year. The Legislature’s majority Democrats are advocating for more pre-K spending.

The “$7 return on investment” line comes from the Perry Preschool Project, which started in 1962 and studied 123 children, with just 58 receiving services. Decades later, researchers found that participants had lower levels of arrest and were more likely to have a job.

That’s where the talking point comes from.

But today’s politicians fail to mention that researchers described the participating children as being at risk of “retarded intellectual functioning.” The children received extensive services, including home visits, and had mothers who stayed at home.

This is like a business claiming a mass-marketed product will make your child smarter, but putting in the small print: “Results only applicable to left-handed, brown-haired 2-year-olds born on Jan. 15 weighing 33.4 pounds.”

Perry was a small program for high-needs children in one town in Michigan that looks nothing like what is being proposed today.

The study’s results haven’t been replicated by today’s much larger pre-K programs. Even the far-left Salon website has acknowledged that the research behind the line “is too easily picked apart.”

In the past 50 years, government-funded pre-K programs have grown considerably — and so has our understanding of their impact. The federal government started the Head Start program in 1965 to help improve the school readiness of low-income children. We have since spent more than $180 billion on this program.

In 2012, the federal government released the results of a random-assignment study of 5,000 Head Start participants. The Heritage Foundation notes that the scientifically rigorous examination found “no statistically measurable effects on any measure of cognitive ability, including reading, language, and math.”

If you prefer to hear this news from a left-leaning source, here’s how Ross Whitehurst with the liberal Brookings Institute describes findings from a study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program. Participants “performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group.” Also concerning is that the “control group scored better than the Pre-K group” on social and emotional skills.

Whitehurst concludes that the findings are “devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-K programs.” The Tennessee program checked all the boxes liberals push. It had a 10-to-1 child to adult ratio, licensed teachers and approved curriculum. It failed anyway.

Looks like we could use those attorney general lawsuits after all.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.