Former Tennessee Education Chief: Universal Pre-K Might Not Work

A Washington Post op-ed challenges the idea behind Mayor Kenney's initiative.

Photo by Christopher Futcher/iStock

Photo by Christopher Futcher/iStock

One of the top priorities in Mayor Jim Kenney’s still-young administration is to expand the city’s pre-K programs to include all children. The tab will be big — a reported $60 million — and much of the discussion so far has been about where to find the money.

But is universal pre-K actually worth the effort?

Over the weekend, Tennessee’s former education commissioner Kevin Huffman, a Republican, cast doubt on such programs in a Washington Post piece: “Democrats love universal pre-K — and don’t seem to care that it may not work.” He didn’t call out Kenney’s specific proposal, noting instead that presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both have it on their agenda.

Still, the piece seems to challenge the idea behind Kenney’s initiative.

Huffman’s case against universal pre-K depends on a study of the program as it was implemented in his state. His summary of the findings: “The pre-K students entered kindergarten with a decided advantage over the comparison group, but that advantage diminished over time. By the time the children reached third grade, the pre-K attendees actually underperformed the comparison group.”

In other words, the main benefits of pre-K wear off in just a few years. Conservatives have made similar arguments about Head Start, Pennsylvania’s pre-K program for low-income residents.

Deana Gamble, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Education in Philadelphia, said other studies offer more optimistic results.

“It is, of course, accurate that quality pre-K alone will not ensure future academic success for a child. There is no one education policy that can do that,” she said via e-mail. “But there’s a mountain of evidence that shows quality pre-K can have a tremendous impact in improving our kids’ academic odds.

“In Pennsylvania for example, 90 percent of participants in Pre-K Counts showed proficiency in literacy, math and social skills after completion. Furthermore, 42 percent of children who received early intervention services through pre-K did not need special education services when they reached kindergarten.”

There may not be a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of pre-K’s efficacy. In 2014, the Atlantic suggested the prime beneficiaries of such programs were children from disadvantaged families, who received more stimulating environments, better language acquisition, and even better nutrition than they’d get at home. “It definitely pays off — particularly for low-income kids,” one expert told the magazine.

And Tennessee’s Huffman, despite his skepticism, says there’s evidence that pre-K produces better overall behavior and higher graduation rates among students. Those aren’t exactly trifling results.

Gamble, meanwhile, suggests that “universal pre-K” doesn’t mean that every child in Philadelphia would have an identical preschool experience.

“All types of quality pre-K providers, including family and community-based, are encouraged to be a part of our expansion efforts,” she said. “This initiative is designed to increase access to quality pre-K all over the city.”