Making a list, fact-checking it twice

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By Jim Waters

While Santa’s busy checking his list, I’m inspecting claims that spending sleigh-fuls of money on government preschool programs would result in long-term improvement for Kentucky’s children.

During his recent inaugural speech, Gov. Steve Beshear made it clear he wants to return to the twin policy towers of his 2007 campaign – expanded gambling and a big-government early childhood program. But he doesn’t seem interested in divulging specific details about either.

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His political pals, however, aren’t as shy.

Longtime Kentucky journalist Al Smith’s Christmas wish list includes Beshear’s plan to spend big on preschool programs, claiming profusely: “Pre-K is the best path to long-range economic development.”

Really?

Better, say, than focusing on proven remedies for fixing our K-12 education system? Better than reforming our tax code and eliminating stifling prosperity-busting regulations so that we attract new economic opportunities?

While the governor is not about to talk specifics concerning how many more taxpayer dollars he thinks will be needed to fulfill his vision for “restructuring our preschool and day-care programs to ensure every child is mentally and physically prepared for kindergarten the day he or she enters the classroom,” Smith wasn’t quite so vague.

His Christmas wish list is that Beshear would “become the boldest of leaders, crafting a four-year plan that champions early childhood education at any cost.”

Really?

We’re facing budget deficits, high unemployment numbers, crisis in our pension and Medicaid programs, and an education system where, according to Kentucky Department of Education statistics, nearly a third of our students drop out of school before they graduate yet Smith thinks we should put all of our eggs in one unproven policy basket “at any cost.”

But I’m checking my list … of facts. I’m not finding much to justify that such a cash dump in this basket would produce results that last any longer than the vanishing interest most youngsters have in their shiny new toys.

Lisa Snell, director of education policy at the Reason Foundation, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that while preschool attendance has increased nationwide from just 16 percent to nearly 70 percent, fourth-grade reading, science and math scores have “remained virtually stagnant since the early 1970s.”

Credible research reveals that while universal preschool initiatives may have some positive impact on helping prepare children – especially disadvantaged kids – for kindergarten, the benefits are “fading out” quickly.

A Strategic Research Group study of Tennessee’s universal preschool program – considered the gold standard – found that whatever advantages children gain from government-run programs largely disappear by the time they reach second grade.

“In every case, in every subject, there was no statistical difference between the children who attended preschool and those who did not.” Snell said of the group’s findings. “Nor was there any advantage for low- or middle-income children in particular.”

Supporters of strapping backpacks on all 4-year-olds point to Oklahoma’s program, where teachers are credentialed, funding is through the public school system at a level of $8,000 per child in the program and great results are witnessed in kindergarten.

Yet in the decade since Oklahoma implemented its universal preschool program, fourth-grade reading and math scores have actually declined.

Missing from Beshear’s rhetoric and Smith’s rant is any mention of programs with successful track records – charter schools, vouchers for special-needs children and paying teachers based on their performance rather than their longevity.

Of course, such topics don’t make for warm-and-fuzzy inaugural addresses. It’s safer to speak in generalities – which Beshear excels at – about “a Kentucky where every child is given the opportunity and the ability to succeed.”

The governor followed that comment with his boldest statement of the day: “We’re not there yet.”

We need to hear more – a sleigh-ful more – about how we get “there.”

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