Obama’s Lopsided Education Policy

President Obama has repeatedly promised to use an
“evidence-based approach” for social policy—and when it comes to
education, he has been true to his word: He has systematically
promoted programs such as universal pre-school with little evidence
of success and panned ones such as school vouchers with lots.
In his recent State of the Union address, the president—not for
the first time—hectored Congress to “make high-quality preschool
available to every single child in America.” “Study after study
shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she
does down the road,” he insisted.
Actually, “study after study” has shown the exact opposite—that
publicly funded preschool programs make no lasting difference in a
child’s life.
Consider Head Start, the nearly half-a-century old early
learning program targeted at low-income toddlers. About a million
kids are enrolled in the program every year and Uncle Sam spends
about $8,000 on each, not exactly chump change. Yet a majority of
studies have found that while these kids show initial cognitive
gains that make them more “school ready,” these gains disappear
once they enter regular school. Pre-K believers have pooh-poohed
these studies on methodological grounds arguing that they did not
track the kids long enough and weren’t based on random assignment
with a valid control group.
None of these objections apply to the Department of Health and
Human Services’ December Head Start Impact
study. It is the most ambitious and expensive evaluation of the
program that the administration did its best to bury by releasing
it on the Friday before Christmas.
The study compared kids who applied and got into Head Start
through a random lottery with those who applied and didn’t get in,
thereby controlling for the motivation level of parents and other
intangibles. It also followed these kids up to third grade instead
of just measuring school readiness for first grade. Yet it found
“very few impacts” in any of the four domains of “cognitive,
socio-emotional, health and parenting practices.”
Head Start is not the only preschool program that has failed to
deliver on its promise. Oklahoma implemented universal preschool in
1998 when its fourth-grade reading score on the National Assessment
Education Progress—the nation’s report card—was five points above
the national average. Now it is five points below. Georgia’s
fourth-grade NAEP reading score have improved—but 21 years after it
embraced universal preschool it ranks 48th in terms of graduation
How about minority kids in whose name these programs were
justified? In both states, fourth-grade black math and reading NAEP
scores were above the national average of black students in other
states. Now they are at the national average.
So why does President Obama claim that every one dollar in early
education saves $7 later? He has in mind Michigan’s 1962 Perry
Preschool Program and North Carolina’s 1972 Abecedarian programs
whose participants posted significant gains on language and math
skills during the school years—and reduced crime, welfare use, and
higher earnings later.
But these programs were the Lamborghinis of early education:
They were super-expensive ($90,000 per child for Abecedarian),
intense interventions where the best teachers and social workers
targeted every aspect—parenting, schooling, nutrition—of 100 low IQ
and neglected minority kids for several years, not just one year as
is the case with regular preschool. By their very nature, they
can’t be scaled up to a national program.
But if President Obama’s case for universal preschool is
tendentious, his opposition to private school vouchers is
At every opportunity he has tried to kill the Washington D.C.
voucher program that serves about 1,600 poor, minority kids. For
every kid admitted, there are four applicants trying to escape the
violence-ridden school system that has among the highest dropout
and lowest graduation rates in the entire country. Yet, within
months of assuming office, the president signed a spending bill
prohibiting scholarships to new students and requiring the program
to be automatically scrapped unless Congress explicitly voted to
renew it. ;
Congress gave the program a five-year extension in 2011, but
every year the president has tried to withhold its measly $20
million funding, half of what the government would spend on these
kids if they stayed in public schools. His last two budgets
initially included not a penny for the scholarship program even as
his 2013 budget
demanded $60 billion in additional education dollars as a
stimulus measure.
What’s the administration’s defense of its step-motherly
treatment of this program? “Private school vouchers are not an
effective way to improve student achievement,” it insists.
“Rigorous evaluations over several years demonstrate that the D.C.
program has not yielded improved student achievement by its
scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.”
Wrong again. These evaluations show the exact opposite. In fact,
the DOE’s
own 2010 study of the D.C. program found that 21 percent more
voucher kids graduated than non-voucher kids and had more satisfied
All of this is in line with studies of voucher programs
elsewhere. Indeed, a meta-analysis of all the major voucher studies
conducted by the Foundation for Educational Choice pointed out that
nine out of 10 random-assignment studies—the most rigorous
possible—found that vouchers improved reading and math outcomes of
voucher kids. (The studies included in the Foundation’s sample were
conducted by such right-wing hacks as the New York Federal Reserve,
Economic Policy Institute, and Department of Education!)
Voucher opponents allege that vouchers hurt public school kids
by draining resources. The exact opposite seems to be the case.
Indeed, out of 19 studies examining this impact, 18 found that
competition by vouchers actually improved education outcomes in
public schools too. “Every empirical study conducted in Milwaukee,
Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs
in those places improved public schools,” the Foundation’s analysis
Vouchers are cheap and effective whereas publicly funded
preschool is expensive and ineffective. That’s what the evidence
shows. And if President Obama wanted to be true to it rather than
indulge his ideological fancy, he would push Universal Vouchers to
improve student performance—not Universal Preschool. That might in
fact free up public education dollars for more targeted
interventions of genuinely at-risk kids while protecting taxpayers
from yet another massive, new entitlement.

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Obama’s Lopsided Education Policy

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