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Jennifer Doverspike is a senior contributor at The Federalist. A former counterterrorism intelligence analyst at the Department of Defense, she has also worked for former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn and Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt. She received a joint bachelor’s and master’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. She lives in Tulsa with her husband and two young children.

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By Jennifer Doverspike

Who should benefit from government-funded preschool? That is the question posed by the American Enterprise Institute in response to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's plan to introduce universal pre-K to the Minnesota public school system.

Minnesota is notable because it already has a lauded statewide preschool program. Its Early Learning Scholarships for low-income families can be used at any preschool facility—center-based, family-run, public, private, Head Start—that features an acceptable ranking from the statewide quality rating system.

But with extra cash in its coffers, Minnesota is not looking to improve its system but instead plans to turn it completely on its head. The debate over universal pre-K isn't new, but as AEI points out, "the battle in Minnesota is notable because substantial experience with a decentralized, targeted approach is causing long-committed early education advocates to strongly oppose the universal pre-K model so often championed by the field."

Why the pushback? Minnesota still only serves a fraction of eligible disadvantaged children with its current program. And although results from the pilot program show a narrowing of the achievement gap for kindergarten readiness, early learning experts are highly aware that the positive effects of preschool often fade out by the early elementary years.

Basically, there is still work to be done for the disadvantaged population of children in the state. As early education specialist Karen Cadigan states, “The definition of the problem has been switched somehow,” she says. “It’s not ‘How do we close the achievement gap’ to ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if all 4-year-olds could go to their neighborhood schools.’

There is a myth that all young children benefit from preschool. As Bruce Fuller points out in the Washington Post, "Youngsters from middle-class and well-off homes benefit little from preschool, according to four independent teams of scholars, each tracking large national samples of children over the past decade ... empirically, a child’s home environment sharply conditions the efficacy of preschool."

Another big myth of early education is that preschool alone can close the achievement gap. By switching the definition of the needs, we do a great disservice to the kids who need preschool the most. In his 2013 State of the Union speech, President Obama stated, "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, and form more stable families of their own." But the studies refer to the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, both of which were intensive programs for a small population of disadvantaged students. Those programs involved visits with the parents and tailored learning plans.

They are less preschool, more large-scale intervention.  To truly serve these populations, Minnesota would do well to spend more on its targeted approach toward its most needy children.

As for Oklahoma, although we are recognized for expanding prekindergarten to all four-year olds in the state, we could learn from Minnesota's successful decentralized, choice-based approach. We do not have to sacrifice the universal component of our preschool program in applying these lessons; Florida, for example, has a voluntary pre-K program in which 89 percent of the providers, as of 2009, were privately run. “As OCPA's Brandon Dutcher wrote in 2006, "just because the government provides preschool education doesn't mean the government has to produce all of it." By shifting some of the operating costs to private providers, Oklahoma could use the surplus to provide intense, targeted care to the children who need it the most.

Guest blogger Jennifer Doverspike is a senior contributor at The Federalist. A former counterterrorism intelligence analyst at the Department of Defense, she has also worked for former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn and Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt. She received a joint bachelor’s and master’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. She lives in Tulsa with her husband and two young children.

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