Responding on Pre-K

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Oklahoman has run a quasi-response to my recent op-ed on whether Pre-K is worth the investment. I say “quasi-response” because the author, Craig Knutson, says he’s not trying to refute what I wrote, just putting his own two cents on the table – which is fair enough.

I appreciate that Knutson agrees Pre-K has to produce an “ROI” (his term) sufficient to justify the investment. Unfortunately, the evidence he provides doesn’t establish how large the ROI of Pre-K is:

  • He says he looked at “five distinct reports and programs,” but doesn’t tell us what they are, so we can’t evaluate either his characterization of their findings or the quality of their methods.
  • He says “all of the studies concluded that returns on investment were greatest among high-risk demographics,” which doesn’t tell us how great the returns were.
  • He says “Oklahoma certainly has a disproportionately large number of high-risk families and children.” This admittedly would depend on how those terms are defined, but it’s hard to think of any reasonable definition by which this assertion would be true – assuming “disproportionately” means “disproportionately compared to other U.S. states,” and I don’t know what other basis of comparison would be relevant. Oklahoma has plenty of struggling people, but not a “disproportionate” number of them as compared with, say, New York or Mississippi.
  • He says “another aspect of these programs was that each was voluntary.” He stresses that this means the programs were selected by parents because they’re valuable and produce returns. He thinks this supports his argument, because it’s evidence these programs are valuable. But if the parents themselves aren’t paying for the programs, then their choice by itself doesn’t establish ROI on a cost basis. More importantly, the public question in Oklahoma right now is whether Pre-K should be expanded. ROI will inevitably go down (as costs go up and benefits go down) when we stretch beyond families who have chosen Pre-K proactively, to rope in families that have to be goaded – or perhaps forced – into attending.
  • He quotes James Heckman saying that “high quality” programs produce benefits, without defining “high quality” or telling us how large the benefits are.
  • The only specific study Knutson cites is this one, which studies a highly targeted program for a specific population that doesn’t represent what Pre-K looks like for the general population. Knutson not only does not inform the reader that the study is looking at a targeted program, he actually protrays it as if it were a study of “high quality” Pre-K programs generally, serving the general population: “But Heckman’s latest research, ‘The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program,’ shows that high-quality programs can deliver a return on investment of 13 percent per year.”

Other than that, there were no problems with it.

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