Walz wants to increase spending on public pre-K, but research says this might do more harm than good
The legislative session started today. Among some of the things legislators will be looking at is how to spend the state’s $7.7 billion surplus.
Governor Walz has already provided his spending proposal. One of the significant pieces of the proposal includes increasing spending on programs that affect children and families. Among other things, Walz wants to spend half a billion dollars through 2025 to expand public pre-K for 4-year-olds.
Lack of access to affordable, high-quality childcare is indeed a big issue in the state of Minnesota. Parents in the state pay some of the highest costs in the nation to keep their kids in daycare. Not to mention, a lot of parents –– especially low-income parents and those in rural Minnesota –– are plagued with a shortage of childcare spaces.
Evidence, however, indicates that spending on public pre-K programs is unlikely to be a solution to the childcare issue.
Public pre-K programs rarely work
When it comes to public pre-K programs, evidence indicates that they rarely work. In fact, sometimes these programs are associated with negative outcomes for kids.
Just recently, a published paper found that expanding pre-K was associated with negative outcomes among kids in Tennessee. Specifically, children who attended pre-K had lower state achievement test scores through sixth grade. These kids also had lower school attendance, were likely to need special education services, and were more likely to have disciplinary infractions.
This is in line with previous evidence from other places like Quebec, where a universal childcare program led to worsening behavioral, social, and health outcomes among kids.
And while other research has shown that kids benefit from some publicly funded programs, the studied programs are usually small, intensive, and bear little resemblance to most large, state-funded programs. Benefits from large programs are usually insignificant or fade out before kids reach school age, and then turn negative.
One likely explanation is that state-funded childcare programs push more parents into the labor force and away from their children, sometimes in cases in which parental care would be more suitable for the child’s development. Other factors like the quality of the programs could be contributing to these outcomes.
But regardless of what those factors are, it is clear that policymakers haven’t yet figured out how to design effective public childcare programs that can consistently deliver benefits, especially to underserved populations.
Lack of affordable, high-quality childcare is a big issue in Minnesota, but expanding public pre-K is unlikely to help. Evidence from other places suggests it might even do more harm than good.
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