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Is There Room in the Pre-K Political Coalition For Critiques of the Pre-K Research Consensus?

Just before DC—and the broader education policy conversation—closed up shop for the holidays, I published a piece in theDaily Beastarguing that public investments in early childhood education were also investments in supporting working families. While Republican support for the Strong Start for America’s Children Act has been limited so far, early childhood programs are compatible with conservative priorities. As I put it in the Beast:
The long-term benefits of investing in early childhood education are considerable, and would eventually help shrink welfare programs Republicans have spent decades trying to cut. What’s more, with additional resources and more comprehensive services, it could be a powerful support for working parents struggling to make ends meet, raise their children, and develop their careers. It’s possible, in other words, to view the program as a means of allowing more Americans to work and provide for their families—solid conservative values.
So I was encouraged to read Reihan Salam provide some evidence that conservatives might be interested in this line of argument. In a Reuters column, he wondered:
Instead of emphasizing the benefits of early education for children, perhaps we should focus on its benefits for parents, and specifically for working mothers, who bear a disproportionate share of the child care burden. And if we accept that early education is fundamentally about freeing working parents from child care duties, we might be able to craft a lower-cost, and more taxpayer-friendly, approach.
There’s a lot to like there; and there’s no reason to dismiss any logic that brings folks into the “supporters of expanded pre-K” camp. But advocates of expanding pre-K access would be right to chafe at conservatives who ignore pre-K’s positive effects on students. Salam’s article was headlined: “Universal preschool may help parents more than children—and that’s ok.” Why are conservatives skeptical of the (ample) research showing considerable social, academic, and economic effects from high-quality, pre-K attendance?

While Republican support for the Strong Start for America’s Children Act has been limited so far, early childhood programs are compatible with conservative priorities.

A recent event at DC’s Cato Institute dug into debates over pre-K research. Georgetown professors William Gormley and Deborah Phillips argued that there’s too much evidence supporting pre-K’s benefits to ignore. George Mason’s David Armor and Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst provided the skeptical counterargument.

Armor’s comments illuminate conservative skepticism on pre-K’s benefits for students—indeed, Salam cited one of his recent papers in the column. At the event, Armor noted that many of the studies showing strong pre-K effects for students share a similar methodology. They take students who are just old enough to qualify for pre-K (call them “Group A”) and compare them to students who are slightly too young to qualify (“Group B”). Since the students are of almost identical ages, they make for a useful comparison. If Group A’s students show considerable academic gains over Group B (in the context of statistical controls, obviously), it’s possible to attribute that progress to pre-K.

Armor and others have alleged that this could be the result of what’s known as “sample attrition.” If some of the students in Group A leave the study (by leaving the school, district, or state), this could skew the results to appear as though pre-K has positive effects when it actually does not. In other words, if Group A changes during the experiment, it ceases to provide a reliable comparison point to Group B.

At the event, Gormley acknowledged that this is a legitimate methodological concern. But he—echoing the Upjohn Institute’s Tim Bartik and others—noted that tests for sample attrition in major studies using this methodology have found scant evidence. In other words, while attrition could affect the outcomes of these studies if it substantively changed the makeup of Group A, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Studies in Tulsa, Boston, and Kalamazoo (MI) used a variety of methods to test for attrition bias...and found no evidence that it was biasing the results. In sum, while sample attrition might be a problem for these studies, as yet there is no empirical evidence that it is. That’s a pretty slender reed on which to base skepticism about pre-K's benefits for students.

I asked Bartik for his thoughts on methodological debates over pre-K evidence. His response cuts to the core of the issue:

There is the danger in expanding pre-K that we might expand something that ends up not working as well as we might hope. But there's also a danger in not expanding pre-K in that by doing so we avoid helping children who could be helped. The question is, based on your overall view of the child development literature, your overall view of the urgency of tax cutting vs. reducing income inequality, and your view of whether it is possible to adapt a system over time, which danger are you more concerned about?
That seems right. While pre-K advocates should accept anyone into political coalitions pushing for expanded pre-K access without interrogating them on their reasons for joining, that doesn't mean they also have to accept critiques of the research methods of quality studies showing pre-K's benefits for students."