A St. Paul coalition wants free pre-K; research says this might harm kids

A coalition in St. Paul is aimed at offering free Pre-K through tax hikes. The St. Paul Ready for Kindergarten (SPARK) is asking individuals to sign a petition that would put a ballot question this November asking residents “to support a series of property tax increases to cover two years of preschool for children from low-income families.”

Certainly, the lack of affordable high-quality childcare is a big issue in Minnesota. Parents pay over $16,000 annually to keep their infants in daycare. This translates to over 20 percent of the median household income. Moreover, many parents live in areas where there are not enough spots.

Besides the fact that offering free Pre-K does not address the root cause, and merely pushes costs onto taxpayers, universal Pre-K is also associated with negative outcomes among children that persist through lifetimes. Quebec is perhaps the biggest example of what could go wrong with universal childcare.

When Quebec offered cheap childcare to all parents, it encouraged more mothers to enter the workforce. However, according to later research, the program also worsened behavioral and health outcomes in children and led to “more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.”Moreover, these effects persisted to school ages and beyond. One study found that “cohorts with increased childcare access had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.”

In Tennessee, children enrolled in the state Pre-K program “had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade.” Moreover, the children were also more likely to misbehave and face disciplinary action, and more likely to need special education.

Certainly, some early childhood education programs are associated with positive outcomes. But these programs tend to be small, intensive, high quality, and focused on disadvantaged kids. For most large-scale childcare programs, any cognitive benefits that children receive tend to fade out; however, those negative behavioral and social outcomes may persist.

Other programs like Head Start are not immune to this. In 2010, for example, an Impact Study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that cognitive gains among children enrolled in first grade faded by the time they enrolled in first grade. However, some kids experienced negative cognitive, social-emotional, and health outcomes.

It might be argued that the level of quality was perhaps a contributing factor to these outcomes. But there is no evidence indicating that St. Paul would offer higher quality Pre-K to low-income children. The mechanisms available for most governments to control for quality are all the same. They include things like staff-child ratios, group size limits, and caregiver educational requirements — factors that have little to no effect on quality.

Despite well-meaning intentions, St. Paul needs to pump the brakes on this. Free Pre-k might be worse for children than no Pre-K.