How could Arkansas Republicans be so heartless?
That’s what many Democrats (and journalists) have been saying this week, after Arkansas Republicans voted to remove any mention of pre-Kindergarten from their party platform last weekend.
Republicans in favor of the platform change say they’re worried pre-K could become mandatory, and they are unconvinced about whether the program actually improves educational outcomes.
Many Democrats and left-wing journalists took the Republican Party’s platform change as an opportunity to explain that Republicans hate children.
For example, here’s Democratic Senate candidate Conner Eldridge:
We should be fighting for the children of this state — especially those in low-income families — not further hindering or ignoring them. The irresponsible move to strike any mention of pre-K puts already at-risk children at even greater risk of never escaping poverty. I call on my opponent to state clearly his position on the matter. Programs like these have win-win outcomes for our children and our entire state that we should all — Democrats and Republicans alike — enthusiastically support.
So, does being skeptical of the benefits of pre-K mean you are “further hindering or ignoring low-income kids” or in favor of putting kids in an “even greater risk of never escaping poverty”?
If you actually read some of the studies done on pre-K, you’ll quickly realize there’s no link between pre-K and helping kids escape poverty.
For example, here’s a 2015 study from the Brookings Institution that examined the voluntary pre-K (TNVPK) program created by Tennessee in 1996 — and expanded by Tennessee legislators in 2005 — at a cost of $85 million to the state’s taxpayers.
As is evident, pre-K and control children started the pre-K year at virtually identical levels. The TNVPK children were substantially ahead of the control group children at the end of the pre-K year (age 5 in the graph). By the end of kindergarten (age 6 in the graph), the control children had caught up to the TNVPK children, and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures. The same result was obtained at the end of first grade using two composite achievement measures (the second created with the addition of two more WJIII subtests appropriate for the later grades). In second grade, however, the groups began to diverge with the TNVPK children scoring lower than the control children on most of the measures. The differences were significant on both achievement composite measures and on the math subtests. Differences favoring the control persisted through the end of third grade. In terms of behavioral effects, in the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings. First grade teachers rated the TNVPK children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school. It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for VPK children in second and third grades.
The second and third grade teachers rated the behaviors and feelings of children in the two groups as the same; there was a small positive finding for peer relations favoring the TNVPK children by third grade teachers, which did not meet traditional levels of statistical significance.
According to this study, pre-K students in Tennessee were, educationally, “substantially ahead” of students who weren’t in a pre-K program before entering kindergarten. However, that gap between the two groups of students quickly closed after their kindergarten years. After 1st grade, “there are no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures.”
In other words, you can rant and rave all you want about how terrible Republicans are for no longer endorsing pre-K in their platform, but the bottom line is that pre-K has little or no influence over how well a student is prepared for the rest of his educational or occupational future.
Contra Eldridge, pre-K isn’t some silver bullet that magically allows low-income students to escape poverty.
At the end of the day, legislators should decide for themselves whether expanding pre-K is a worthwhile use of state taxpayer dollars.
It’s pretty clear that some Arkansans don’t want that debate to be based on actual facts — instead, they favor the pearl-clutching demagoguery we saw this week.