This week’s clash in the race for Texas governor couldn’t be more classic.Democratic candidate Wendy Davis, pushing every way she can to set the agenda for the Nov. 4 election, set the stage by saying Texas must get more of its children under the protective tent of early childhood education. On Monday, Republican candidate Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general, said more kids in pre-k is a great concept, but expansion must be based on proven results lest it become nothing more than tax-supported daycare.Those are standard party lines, nothing really innovative on either side, but clear indicators of where the candidates believe their voters divide on this crucial education issue. Early childhood education drew a lot of attention last year when President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union Address called for making high-quality preschool available for all children.The National Institute for Early Education Research says in the latest edition of its State of Preschool Yearbook, covering data through 2012, that 28 percent of America’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs during the 2011-2012 school year, the same as the year before.But funding for preschool programs in 2011-2012 fell by $500 million nationwide, a drop of about $400 per child, raising “serious concerns on the quality and availability of pre-k education for most of America’s young learners.”The institute attributed the drop to lingering effects of the national recession. Still, states were spending more than $5 billion on pre-k.But how effective is preschool education? Perhaps the best-known example is Head Start, a federal program that began in 1965. While Head Start has been widely praised, a 2010 research report from the Department of Health and Human Services and another study from 2012 raised questions about its long-term effectiveness.A 2013 study of 28 previous Head Start research papers, cited by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, concluded that the program is “effective in improving children’s short-term (less than one year) cognitive and achievement outcomes.”Two widely cited long-term studies show significant advantages from preschool education.The Perry Preschool Study began in Michigan in 1962 and focuses on the lifetime development of 123 African-American students. Researchers have reported that decades later those former students “have higher earnings, are more likely to hold a job, have committed fewer crimes and are more likely to have graduated from high school.”The study report cites “a return to society of more than $16 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program.”The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started the Carolina Abecedarian Project in 1972, enrolling disadvantaged children mostly raised by single mothers. Ninety-eight percent were African-American.Reports on the study say the children showed higher cognitive test scores through age 21 and higher achievement in reading and math from primary grades through young adulthood.They completed more years of education and were more likely to attend a four-year college. They bore their first children later in life.Mothers whose children were in the program achieved higher educational and employment status.While “studies suggest the power of well-funded programs targeting specific communities,” the Shorenstein Center reports, studies also stress the importance of proper assessments, curricula and teacher credentials.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9