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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Preschool Stretch

The president makes misleading claims in his effort to sell a universal preschool plan.


President Obama exaggerates the potential benefits of his ambitious plan for universal preschool, as he first outlined in the State of the Union and repeated elsewhere since then:

  • Obama says every dollar invested in “high quality” preschool can return “seven dollars later on” but that is based on an economic analysis of a small, two-year program that targeted disadvantaged youth in Michigan. Obama is proposing a one-year program for “every single child in America.”
  • Obama also points to the success of universal preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, saying “studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.” But the oldest students from the Georgia program — the first state to offer universal preschool — are now just 20 years old, and those in Oklahoma are even younger. So proclamations about the ability to hold jobs or form more stable families, for example, are premature.

In both cases, Obama is extrapolating the results of small, expensive programs and applying them to universal state programs.

Academics who have studied preschool programs say it is too soon to know the long-term results of statewide universal programs, but evidence suggests Obama’s plan to include all 4-year-old kids — including those from middle-income families — would not see nearly as dramatic results. For example, a study of the Georgia program — which Obama touts as an example of cost-effective universal preschool — found that “disadvantaged children residing in small towns and rural areas” benefited the most. But, the study’s author tells us, “We just haven’t seen the same types of gains for all kids when programs become available more broadly.”

It also remains to be seen exactly how universal Obama’s proposal will end up being.

According to the details of his plan released by the White House, Obama “is proposing a new federal-state partnership to provide all low- and moderate-income four-year old children [those from families at or below 200 percent of poverty level] with high-quality preschool, while also expanding these programs to reach additional children from middle class families.” However, it continues to tout “preschool for all.” The full extent of Obama’s plan may not become apparent until he releases a proposed budget in mid-March.


In his State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled a bold plan to make preschool available to all 4-year-old children.

Obama, Feb. 12: You know, study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

So, tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.

That’s something we should be able to do.

Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children — like Georgia or Oklahoma — studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

Two days later, Obama gave a speech on early childhood education at the Decatur Community Recreation Center in Georgia, again proposing to “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” And he again touted its benefits.

Obama, Feb. 14: Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for the poor children who need it the most, the lack of access to a great preschool education can have an impact on their entire lives. And we all pay a price for that. And as I said, this is not speculation. Study after study shows the achievement gap starts off very young. Kids who, when they go into kindergarten, their first day, if they already have a lot fewer vocabulary words, they don’t know their numbers and their shapes and have the capacity for focus, they’re going to be behind that first day. And it’s very hard for them to catch up over time. …

Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime. In states like Georgia that have made it a priority to educate our youngest children, states like Oklahoma, students don’t just show up in kindergarten and first grade more prepared to learn, they’re also more likely to grow up reading and doing math at grade level, graduating from high school, holding a job, even forming more stable families.

Hope is found in what works. This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here.

At our request, the White House sent along a handful of studies to back up the president’s claims.

In regard to Obama’s claims about a cost-to-benefit ratio of 1-to-7, the White House pointed specifically to a study led by James J. Heckman at the University of Chicago of the Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Mich., that concluded “each dollar invested returns in present value terms 7 to 12 dollars back to society.”

The Perry program targeted disadvantaged African-American youth in the early 1960s, and academics tracked the progress of 123 students — including a control group that did not get into the program — through age 40. The two-year program cost about $19,000 per student in today’s dollars, and included in-home visits (participants had to have stay-at-home mothers).

That’s far different than any universal preschool program currently run by any state.

Most state programs cost around $6,100 per student, and are one-year programs (such as the president talked about in his State of the Union address). In addition, the results in Perry are for “disadvantaged students.” Other studies suggest the benefits that accrue to middle-income students are far less dramatic.

We reached out to Heckman’s office, which referred our questions to Rich Neimand, president of the Neimand Collaborative. Neimand said “high-quality” preschool “is directly linked to adult outcomes” and all students can benefit from it. But, he added, “disadvantaged children are least likely to receive it,” and “if funds are limited then the priority should be placed on disadvantaged children because it provides the greatest economic return.”

We asked if it was fair to extend the results observed from the Perry program to that of universal preschool, which Obama did without saying that’s what he’d done. Neimand responded via email: “To the best of our knowledge, there has been no evidence-based scientific research on the value of universal pre-school. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that universal has no value.”

There are disagreements in academia about the long-term effects of preschool programs. The biggest effort, the Head Start program — which provides a comprehensive approach including preschool, health care, nutrition and parent outreach —  has shown “initial positive impacts,” according to a study done for the Obama administration last year. But, the study said that “by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices.”

And the studies cited by the White House — which you can view here, here, here and here — were either studies of programs that targeted low-income disadvantaged students, or concluded that the positive effects are largest for disadvantaged students.

Georgia and Oklahoma

Obama also overreached when he linked the programs in Georgia and Oklahoma to studies that “show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.” The oldest students in the Georgia program are now just 20 years old, and the Oklahoma students are even younger. So Obama isn’t talking about them, when he cites the ability to “hold a job” and “form more stable families of their own.”

Studies of the Georgia program have shown promising academic results, especially in the few years after preschool, and particularly for disadvantaged students.

In 2008, Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick, then a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford University, did a research paper looking at  the program in Georgia, the first state, as Obama said, to offer universal preschool. She concluded that while the economic benefits for disadvantaged children were clear, they were less so for middle-income kids.

Fitzpatrick, 2008: For disadvantaged children residing in small towns and rural areas, Universal Pre-K availability increases both reading and mathematics test scores at fourth grade as well as the probability of students being on-grade for their age. Increases in some measures of achievement also were seen among other groups, though the patterns were less uniform across outcome measures.

One of the key qualifiers is that the best results were seen for “disadvantaged children residing in small towns and rural areas.” The same level of results were not achieved by middle-income students, for example.

In fact, Fitzpatrick concluded:

Fitzpatrick, 2008: The costs of the program today ($302 million in 2007-2008) greatly outweigh the benefits in terms of potential increased taxable revenue. This is a very simple cost benefit analysis and should therefore be interpreted with caution. However, it is at least suggestive that the government’s scarce resources would be better spent on more targeted early childhood interventions that have been shown to be more cost efficient, particularly if the goal is to increase wages through test scores.

“We just haven’t seen the same types of gains for all kids when programs become available more broadly,” said Fitzpatrick in a phone interview with FactCheck.org. “We don’t really know what the returns are yet from a universal program.”

If there are limited resources, and in government that is always the case, the question is whether it would make more sense to invest a smaller amount of money per student for a mediocre program for all students or a larger amount of money for a more targeted program, said Fitzpatrick, now an assistant professor at Cornell University. The evidence seems to support the latter, she said.

Most of the claims about the benefits of preschool are based on research on the Perry preschool program and the Carolina Abecedarian Project in Chapel Hill, N.C, which also targeted children from low-income families.

But those were costly programs. According to a Perry program report, the program cost $14,716 per student in 2001 dollars, which now adjusted for inflation would be just over $19,000. And the Abecedarian program was even more expensive: about $90,000 per child in 2010 dollars, or nearly $95,000 today.

By comparison, the Georgia program currently costs about $4,000 to $5,000 per student, Fitzgerald said, and is in line with what other states are paying for preschool.

In a story on preschool written last month, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, argued against just the kind of comparisons that Obama made.

“In my view, generalizations to state pre-K programs from research findings on Perry and Abecedarian are prodigious leaps of faith,” wrote Whitehurst, a former education official under George W. Bush.

For starters, he said, the two programs were multiyear programs, whereas the state programs are one-year programs for 4-year-olds. The cost of those programs was much higher than any current state program, he added. And the two programs were “run by very experienced, committed teams, whereas widely deployed present day preschool programs are, well, widely deployed.”

It’s relevant to talk about the results of the Perry program, as long as you note that’s what you’re talking about, Whitehurst told us in a phone interview. Whitehurst said Obama was “at best misleading” when using the results from studies of those small programs in the same sentence as the universal programs in Oklahoma and Georgia.

“Not only is that an unjustified reference,” Whitehurst said, “it’s also contradicted by what little research we have.”

By and large, he said, “middle-income kids are already prepared for kindergarten. … The impact is always greatest for kids who are farthest behind.”

That’s why a program targeted to kids from low-income families may make economic sense, while a universal program may not, Whitehurst said.

Interestingly, while Obama proposed preschool for all and talked about the burden of preschool costs on middle-class families, the details of the proposal unveiled by the White House in a fact sheet on Feb. 13 suggest the federal focus is primarily on children from low-income families.

According to the plan, Obama is proposing “a cost sharing partnership with all 50 states, to extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year olds from families at or below 200 percent of poverty.”

Dollars would be allocated based on states’ “share of four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families.” In addition, the proposal includes “an incentive for states to broaden participation in their public preschool program for additional middle-class families,” which states may decide to offer as a “sliding-scale arrangement.” The full extent of Obama’s financial commitment to the plan won’t be known until he unveils his proposed budget, which is expected to be released in mid-March.

So, in fact, the president’s plan does seem to target dollars to reach disadvantaged, low-income students. But in his State of the Union address, Obama exaggerated the effects of universal preschool by comparing results from small, expensive programs targeted to disadvantaged youth to a universal program for which such results are unproven.

— by Robert Farley


Transcript of Obama’s State of the Union Address. UPI.com. 12 Feb 2013.

White House Website. Remarks by the President on Early Childhood Education — Decatur, GA. 14 Feb 2013.

Heckman, James J.; Moon, Seong Hyeok Moon; Pinto, Rodrigo; Savelyev, Peter A.; and Yavitz, Adam. “The rate of return to the HighScope Perry Preschool Program.” Journal of Public Economics. 18 Nov 2009.

Levine, Phillip B. and Zimmerman, David J.”Targeting Investments in Children: Fighting Poverty When Resources are Limited.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Aug 2010.

Puma, Michael, Bell, Stephen, Cook, Ronna, Camilla Heid, Camilla, Broene, Pam, Jenkins, Frank, Andrew Mashburn, Andrew and Downer, Jason. Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study, Final Report. For the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Oct 2012.

Heckman, James J. and Masterov, Dimitriy V. “The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children.” 22 Mar 2007.

Reynolds, Arthur J., Temple, Judy A., Ou, Suh-Ruu, Arteaga, Irma A. and White, Barry A. “School-Based Early Childhood Education and Age-28 Well-Being: Effects by Timing, Dosage, and Subgroups.” Science. 15 Jul 2011.

Schweinhart, L. J., Montie, J., Xiang, Z., Barnett, W. S., Belfield, C. R., and Nores, M. “Lifetime effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool study through age 40.” HighScope Educational Research Foundation. 2005.

Fitzpatrick, Maria Donovan. “Starting School at Four: The Effect of Universal Pre-Kindergarten on Children’s Academic Achievement.” Stanford University. December 2008.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project. University of North Carolina.

Schweinhart, Lawrence J. “Benefits, Costs, and Explanation of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program.” High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. 26 Apr 2003.

Whitehurst, Grover J. “Russ.” “Can We Be Hard-Headed About Preschool? A Look at Universal and Targeted Pre-K.” The Brown Center Chalkboard. Brookings Institution. 23 Jan 2013.

White House Website. “Fact Sheet President Obama’s Plan for Early Education for all Americans.” 13 Feb 2013.

Reilly, Sean. “2014 budget to be released in mid-March, memo says.” Federal Times. 11 Feb 2013.