Billion Dollar Boondoggle: Early Childhood Education

By Barry Peters, Esq.
Legal Advisor to ICHE

     "The patient needs more medicine."

     That is the cry of advocates for early childhood education. They believe that, despite decades of burgeoning educational budgets, the academic failures of the current generation reflect a shortage of funding for younger and younger students. If only our citizens and legislators would spend more money on early childhood education (ECE), the downward spiral would magically reverse itself.
     But there is a problem: The most popular ECE programs have now been proven to be totally ineffective in the battle to improve academic performance. They have been demonstrated to be a rat hole down which the United States pours billions of dollars every year.[1] And still the ECE advocates clamor for more money and more years of compulsory education.
     Within private industry, such abject failures would result in wholesale budget cuts. In the smoke-and-mirror-filled world of educational bureaucrats, the strident cry for more programs covering more years continues unabated. They never stop to wonder whether the patient really needs more of the same medicine.

The Unattained Goal

     Educators have for many years believed that certain knowledge and skills among children entering kindergarten result in stronger academic performance later in life. For example, children who recognize their letters, basic numbers, and shapes have tended to read earlier and better than those who do not.
     So the theory behind ECE is that if government programs can increase these skills among preschoolers, the result should be a long-term increase in academic success. And so our country has committed billions of dollars each year to pursue these seemingly simple goals. That amount has been spent year in and year out. But we have neglected to obtain a sober assessment of whether this premise has proven to be true.
     In reality, the research has frustratingly shown no mid or long-term return on this massive investment. The academic achievement of today's students continues to languish.

Annoying Research

     ECE experts tend to tout various studies to demonstrate the success of their programs. They claim that such programs increase the preschoolers' readiness to enter kindergarten by enabling them to recognize letters, numbers, and shapes. This, they assure us, will result in improved academic achievement.
     What they neglect to mention is that the studies which track the long-term benefits of ECE programs are nearly unanimous in their findings that students from those programs fare no better than did those not participating in such programs. In other words, the return on our current multi-billion dollar per year investment is zero.

The Devil in the Details

     The most extensively-implemented ECE program in the country is the Head Start program, administered and funded by the federal Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). It was created in 1965 to "promote school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of low-income children." For over forty years, it has enrolled millions of three and four year old students. It has been studied in hundreds of research projects. The results of those studies should be angering to the taxpayers and parents of this county.
     On the HHS' own website are several important in-depth assessments of the fruits of the Head Start program. It should be remembered that these materials are from the department that is responsible to ensure the success of these efforts. Yet their own conclusions show a stunning and consistent failure of these programs. Here are a few of their own comments:

     ". . . few children perform as poorly as children who enter and leave the Head Start program."
     ". . .children who attend Head Start make less progress than the average kindergartener."
     "Research shows that children in Head Start are falling behind and too often are not ready for school."

     Instead of the hoped-for jump in academic achievement, these programs yield no long-term academic benefits.

Fade-Out Syndrome

     Long-term tracking of students who participated in ECE programs shows a pernicious academic fade out, and sometimes even a burn out, among those children.      In the earliest major evaluation of Head Start, the Westinghouse Learning Corporation concluded in 1969 that "Summer (Head Start) programs were found to have no lasting impact. Full year programs resulted in cognitive and language gains at the first grade level but appeared to 'fade out' by second or third grade." [3]
     Sixteen years later, a meta-analysis of over 210 research reports on the results of Head Start programs was conducted. The Head Start Synthesis Project (1985) concluded that "in the long-run, cognitive and socioemotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged students who did not attend Head Start." [4]
     Research in the Early Childhood Research & Practice journal (Spring, 2002) further shows that students enrolled in more structured preschool programs actually experience a "burn out" factor within a few years of entering elementary school. When very young children are forced to learn subjects about which they are not currently interested, their natural curiosity is sapped. To the great frustration of their parents and teachers, they end up actually lagging behind those students who received no institutional preschool training at all. [5]

Staggering Tax Burden:

     Many ECE advocates, including both the national and the Idaho teachers unions, optimistically look forward to the day when their programs are universally implemented for children from birth on up. [6] But one must always count the cost and calculate the genuine benefits of such programs.
     Based on the number of students enrolled in Idaho's public school kindergartens, it is a safe estimate that there are approximately 20,000 children in the state who might enroll in each grade level of pre-kindergarten program that the state chooses to implement.
     Idaho currently spends $8,071 per year for each public school student. At that same rate, offering pre-kindergarten to all four year olds in the state will cost the taxpayers an additional $161 million per year. Offering pre-kindergarten to all three year olds, as well, will double that figure to $322 million per year. And even these figures likely understate the actual cost since ECE advocates call for student-to-staff ratios of 5:1 for three year olds and 7:1 for four year olds. The manpower necessary to staff such programs will be significantly higher than is required for the higher grades where Idaho public schools currently employ an average of one teacher for every 18 students.
     Against these staggering numbers, one must superimpose the remarkable failure of such programs to generate genuine academic advancements.
     Idaho must never willingly spend such breathtaking sums on programs that show no ability to generate an improvement in the academic achievement of her students.

Collateral Damage:

     Besides being academically unproductive, ECE programs erode the strength of the family.
     For decades educators have known that the single most important factor in a child's educational achievement is the degree of involvement by the parents in that child's education. To the extent that the public school system intrudes further into a child's early years, that natural role of the parent as teacher is undercut.
     Well-intentioned parents will mistakenly be led to believe that the ECE programs will make a positive difference in their child's life and education. Trusting the government, those parents will be tempted to rely on the state programs and relax the diligence with which they take advantage of the teachable moments that present themselves to the family. The result: ever increasing government dependence and ever decreasing test scores.


     The truth about early childhood education is counterintuitive.
     One would expect that increasing the duration of a child's institutional education would yield improved academic achievement. It does not.
     It is as simple as that. But Idaho's citizens and legislators are cajoled and threatened. They are advised to spend a staggering number of taxpayer dollars each year on ECE programs that will be ineffective and will undermine the strength of the family.
     Unfortunately, the early childhood education advocates and bureaucrats have failed to realize that their premise is an idea whose time has gone.


  1. http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa333.pdf at pages 4 to 6
  2. http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/StrengthenHeadStart03/report.pdf at pages 3, 5, and 33
  3. http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/headstar.htm at page 2
  4. Ibid. p. 3
  5. http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v4n1/marcon.html at pages 1 & 18
  6. http://www.nea.org/handbook/images/resolutions.pdf at p. 200

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