The Outstater: A Preschool Mirage

February 22, 2015

For the use of the membership only (649 words)

PERHAPS IT’S JUST THE TONE, but the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s approach seems the same regardless of the issue. There is the assumption that if Hoosiers knew what the Chamber knew — if we weren’t so dumb or lazy — then we would get out of the way and let progress progress.

And so it is with government-sponsored preschool. It doesn’t cost, it pays — or so says Caryl Auslander, the Chamber’s vice president of education and workforce development. Indeed, it would yield over time nearly $200,000 per student, she asserts before admonishing, “What are we waiting for?”

Compelling if it were true. It isn’t, but first let her make the Chamber’s case:

“The Perry Preschool Study in Michigan chronicled the effect preschool had on more than 100 at-risk youngsters in Michigan from the early 1960s until they reached age 40. Half the group attended preschool; half did not. Those with preschool graduated high school more frequently, earned more money ($5,000-plus in median annual income) and were arrested less. The most eye-popping number: The $15,000 preschool investment per child yielded a savings to the public of nearly $200,000 (over the years of the study) thanks to money not spent on welfare, incarceration and other costs. That’s an average savings of $185,000 for each child in the study who went to preschool versus those who didn’t. And those savings will continue to mount over the lives of those individuals.”

The Chamber assumes that the per-student savings are the result of government-directed classroom learning and moral training. But that assumption is not supported by the study Ms. Auslander cites.

James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, recently took a fresh look at the Perry data. He concluded that the key factor in explaining difference in outcomes between the non-preschool and preschool groups was “externalized behavior.”

“Reducing externalizing behaviors is fancy social-science jargon for increasing self-control,” explains Dr. Cecil Bohanon of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. “In other words, evidence from the most valid and reliable study shows that the primary benefit of preschool lies in its ability to increase a child’s skills in interacting with peers and teachers. Learning to control one’s resentments, constrain one’s anger and follow the rules at age four seem to be a key to keeping a job, not committing a crime and staying off addictive substances at age 40.”

Important stuff, but it raises doubts about the Chamber’s cost-benefit projections, because government is an unlikely teacher of the hard-earned virtues of self-control, especially in a politically correct culture in which almost every absolute is challenged. More likely, a government-directed preschool system, with or without vouchers, would struggle to produce independent, self-reliant children if indeed it were given the authority to do so.

Bohanon continues: “Self-control may be one of the virtues necessary for a free society. Nevertheless, it seems ironic to use the coercive mechanism of government — yes, taxes are coercion — to set up programs to teach self-control to groups that social scientists tell us lack self-control. We are left with this question: Public schooling may re-enforce habits of a free society, but can we or should we rely on it to be the fount of those habits?”

Most recently, another foundation scholar surveyed the preschool research for our quarterly journal. Her conclusion: “The government-driven models reviewed tended to be carelessly and confusingly conceptualized. They often were only poor-quality reproductions of smaller, more-controlled experiments and could not guarantee significant returns on a child’s education. More importantly, the very nature of these programs predisposes them to politicization, thereby stymieing meaningful reform and wasting precious resources — not the least being the hopes and energies of low-income children and their families.”

The Chamber’s $200,000-per-student savings, then, may be a mirage; its policy recommendation, so dependent on a government role, could work out to a net zero. If so, are we wasting not only tax money but also the precious time of the children in whose name the money is spent?

An answer to that question, Ms. Auslander, is what we are waiting for.

— Craig Ladwig



Caryl Auslander. “An Investment that Pays Handsome Dividends.” The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Feb. 20, 2015.

James Heckman, Rodrigo Pinto and Peter Savelyev. “Understanding the Mechanisms through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes.” The American Economic Review, p. 18, October 2013.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D. “Adam Smith and the Rationale of Preschool.” The Indiana Policy Review, Nov. 11, 2013.

Hang La. “Character Begins Here — Or Not.” The Indiana Policy Review, fall 2014.



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