Let’s Experiment With Universal Preschool

I’m a considerable fan of early childhood education. Megan McArdle says she’s tentatively in favor too, but “I am opposed to blind boosterism of such programs, the kind that confidently predicts marvelous results from thin empirical evidence, and briskly proceeds to demand huge sums be spent accordingly.” I’m tempted to say this is a straw-man argument, but maybe not. There are a lot of cheerleaders out there. In any case, she offers a useful corrective for anyone who thinks the evidence in favor of universal preschool is open and shut. So what should we do?

I would like to see us experiment more with these programs. But the key word here is “experiment.” Which is to say we should: Try more programs….Take the programs that seem to work and scale them up to a larger group….Rinse and repeat [until we figure out what, if anything, works.] That would be the sane, sensible way to go about constructing policy in an important area.

But politically, how insane! Voters don’t want to hear about a decade or two of carefully planned research to help shape solid policy choices; they want to hear promises of immediate solutions to an immediate problem. That’s not a great way to make policy. But it’s a pretty good way to get elected.

I don’t think these are mutually exclusive options. The 1988 Family Support Act might be a useful model here. Following a series of welfare reform experiments in the early 80s, it authorized additional research on a larger scale. Why not do the same thing with preschool? Offer substantial funding to states willing to participate in rigorous testing of preschool programs, with the goal of producing useful results in six or seven years.

This could be a substantial program, not just a few small-scale tests, which would certainly count toward any campaign promises made about universal pre-K. And the money would go to the states most eager to participate, which would be politically savvy. At the same time, it wouldn’t cost as much as a nationwide program, which would make it easier to get through Congress. And finally, the promise of larger-scale testing would satisfy the demands of social scientists, who rightly point out that small-scale experiments don’t always scale successfully into bigger programs.

I’m tempted to say that if Democrats and Republicans could agree on this approach for testing welfare reform in 1988, they should be able to agree on doing the same thing for preschool in 2017. That’s not necessarily true, of course. Still, it seems like this kind of program would, at a minimum, be more likely to pass a divided Congress than full-blown universal pre-K legislation. Why not give it a try?