If public investment in pre-k is needed, who should be doing the investing?

Ezra Klein has posted a nice column that summarizes some long-term issues facing the U.S.  The essence of his argument is that in addition to closing the budget deficit, we need to make additional productive investments, and to identify such productive investments, we need to have good evaluation of government interventions.

I want to briefly expand here on one point. Ezra Klein mentioned in his column the following: “We don’t have a national system of pre-kindergarten, despite an almost endless amount of evidence that pre-K education has huge returns for every dollar spent and is probably the single most valuable investment we could make in the country’s future.”

It is certainly welcome to have a prominent blogger such as Ezra Klein mention the importance of pre-k and the evidence for it. But an important issue is: who should be doing this investment to create a national system of pre-kindergarten?

As I suggested in an earlier post, there are arguments for a federal role in pre-k. There are sizable economic spillovers from a state’s investments in pre-k.  The former child participants in pre-k will as adults live not only in the state making the investments, but throughout the U.S. In chapter 10 of my book Investing in Kids, I calculate that about 73% of pre-k’s economic development benefits accrue within the state doing the investing, but 27% accrue in other states. The benefits that accrue outside the state doing the investing exceed the costs of the state’s investment.

On the other hand, there is a strong argument that high-quality pre-k requires flexibility in program design. Local areas differ, for example, in the degree to which they already have many high-quality private preschool programs.  Therefore, whether a pre-K program should mainly rely on provision through the public schools, or through private preschools, probably should vary in different local areas.

In addition, the argument has been made that as currently designed and operated, many state pre-k programs seem to produce better results than the average Head Start program. (It should be noted that Head Start programs differ widely in quality, and many are high-quality. It should also be noted that not all state pre-k programs are high-quality) This has sometimes been attributed to a rigidity of program design in many Head Start programs due to the traditional “top-down” federal nature of the program (for example, see remarks by Art Rolnick, formerly director of research as the Minneapolis Fed). The Obama Administration is seeking to make improvements to the Head Start program.  Still, the success of some state pre-k programs versus the federal Head Start program is a potential argument for considerable state and local leadership in pre-k investments.  Even the diversity of performance among state pre-k programs and different Head Start Centers is an argument that we need to encourage diversity and identify successful programs. At the very least, any large-scale federal investment in pre-k should allow for considerable local flexibility.

And there are good reasons for states to invest in pre-k. Although 27% of the economic development benefits accrue to other states, 73% of the benefits accrue within the state. And this 73% of all benefits are sufficient that the economic development benefits for a state from universal pre-k are almost three times program costs (the exact figure I come up with is that each dollar of state investment yields $2.78 in economic development benefits for the state economy)..

One essential federal role in pre-k should be evaluation. It is unrealistic to expect states to invest adequately in evaluating themselves, as the increased knowledge from these evaluations will accrue to the nation. In addition, it is hard for a government agency to harshly judge its own performance. As Klein notes, evaluation is a key part of increasing the productivity of government interventions. But we need to have a better approach to evaluation of public programs than is currently used in this country. I will return to that in a future blog post.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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