California’s Democrats have dreamed for more than a decade of bringing universal preschool to the Golden State. In the latest push, Democratic state senate leader Darrell Steinberg has unveiled Senate Bill 837, the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, promising free public preschool—what backers now call “transitional kindergarten”—to every four-year-old in the state.

The legislation, which has broad support among Democrats in Sacramento, is a sequel to SB 1381, a comparatively modest universal preschool bill that Governor Jerry Brown signed in 2010. That program eventually got under way in 2012, with an initial enrollment of 39,000 students. Steinberg’s new legislation would require any district that offers kindergarten also to offer transitional kindergarten, phased in over five years starting in 2015. The Senate bill estimates enrollment of 46,000 children per year. Cost estimates vary, but most analysts agree California taxpayers will pay more than $1 billion a year for the program once it is fully implemented in 2020.

Advocates for universal preschool say the price tag would be more than offset by greatly reduced special-education and prison costs, as well as by increased academic gains. This idea is suddenly popular among Democrats across the country. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for a universal pre-kindergarten program in the Big Apple. Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy wants it in his state. Even President Obama touted the preschool idea in his 2014 State of the Union address, claiming research has shown that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is “high-quality early education.”

But those claims don’t survive close scrutiny. The United States, in fact, has a near 50-year history of funding early-childhood programs in the form of Head Start. The federal government released the last of a three-part longitudinal study of the $8 billion-a-year Great Society-era program in December 2012, and the results offered little cause for celebration. According to the report’s executive summary: “[T]here was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.” The 2012 report only reinforced some disappointing findings from the study’s second phase, which showed that any gains “had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.”

Other studies purporting to show preschool’s benefits also fail to prove that spending billions on transitional kindergarten would be money well spent. The famous Abecedarian and Perry Preschool Projects, for example, are now more than 40 years old and involved no more than 60 children. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray points out, both studies “were overseen by the same committed, well-intentioned people who conducted the demonstration projects. Evaluations of social programs are built around lots of judgment calls—from deciding how the research is designed to figuring out how to analyze the data. People with a vested interest in the results shouldn’t be put in the position of making those judgments.”

Similarly, David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa of George Mason University’s School of Public Policy write about the oft-quoted, but methodologically defective New Jersey, Boston, and Tulsa studies, which failed to use rigorous randomized designs. In fact, the Brookings Institution’s Grover J. Whitehurst writes, the group that went through the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program “performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though [three-quarters] of the children in the control group had no experience as four-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.” Whitehurst concludes: “Until the field of early education becomes evidence based, it will be doomed to cycles of fad and fancy. We need a science of early-childhood education, and we need it now.”

The California Teachers Association is on board with Steinberg’s bill—and any bill that adds new, dues-paying jobs to help boost its membership and replenish its diminished coffers. SB 837 would create thousands of new teaching positions while keeping class sizes at 20 children or fewer. But Steinberg insists that the legislation is about kids, not union jobs.

While Democratic lawmakers, union leaders, and professional activists are greatly enamored with the idea, California’s voters have been cool to the universal preschool concept. More than 60 percent of voters rejected Proposition 82, a tax-the-rich scheme for funding universal preschool that Hollywood activist Rob Reiner fielded in 2006. That initiative bore a striking resemblance to SB 837, promising preschool for low-income four-year-olds at a cost of $145 million a year.

In lieu of facts, supporters of transitional kindergarten have resorted to political appeals—or the “cardiac test,” as Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby calls it: “You just know in your heart that this is right.” Though Steinberg’s bill has strong support in the legislature, increased funding for preschool programs was conspicuously absent from the proposed $155 billion budget Governor Brown released on January 9. When asked about Steinberg’s proposal, the governor replied that he was willing to listen to advocates, but stressed that “wisdom and prudence is [sic] the order of the day.” Indeed, before spending another dime on any preschool program, we need solid research showing real and lasting benefits.

And we need it now.


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