President Obama has announced a cure for the country's social ills: universal preschool. It would help children "read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own," and also reduce teen pregnancy and violent crime, he said in his State of Union address. As evidence for these remarkable claims he pointed to Oklahoma and Georgia, the early adopters of universal preschool. But the real evidence from those states suggests that preschool doesn't deliver on even its most basic promises.
Oklahoma implemented its program in 1998 and is the pet of universal preschool activists because it's a red state that has diligently applied their playbook. It spends about $8,000 per preschooler, about the same as on K-12. Its teachers are credentialed, well-paid, abundant (one per 10 children) and use a professionally designed curriculum. Georgia expanded a pre-K program for high-risk children to all 4-year-olds in 1995.
Both programs are voluntary and involve the private sector. Oklahoma pays churches and other community providers for the children they enroll. Georgia effectively hands parents a $4,500 voucher for a qualified preschool. Both states have participation rates well above the 47 percent national preschool average, and Oklahoma's 75 percent enrollment rate is the highest in the country.
Yet neither state program has demonstrated major social benefits. The first batch of children who attended preschool in Georgia, in 1995, are now turning 22, so Obama's claim that they are better at "holding jobs" and "forming stable families" can't be true.
But what about, say, teenage girls staying out of trouble? Teen birth rates have declined in the past 10 years in Georgia and Oklahoma (as they have nationwide), but both states remain far above the national average. In 2005, Georgia had the eighth-highest teen-birth rate and Oklahoma the seventh-highest, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Now Georgia has the 13th-highest, Oklahoma the fifth-highest. Many states without universal preschool have a far better record.
Preschool activists counter that this disregards shifting demographics and loosening sexual mores. They also claim there might be "sleeper effects" of preschool that don't show up in studies. But the logic of universal preschool is that social pathologies such as teen births can be addressed by positioning children for success in school. And there is little evidence that this is true.
Consider graduation rates: Oklahoma has lost ground and Georgia is stagnant. Oklahoma ranked 24th in 1998 but 25th when its first batch of universal-preschool children graduated last year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by the United Health Foundation. Georgia's high-school graduation rate was 46th from the top in 1995. It dipped to 47th in 2009, the year its first batch graduated, before rising to 45th in 2012.
The preschool case also isn't helped by scores from the National Assessment for Educational Progress—the national report card. The average NAEP reading score for Oklahoma fourth-graders dropped four points between 1998 and 2011—although it went up nine points for Georgia. Yet none of the three states with fully realized universal pre-K (Florida, which began its program in 2005, is the third) was among the top-10 highest scorers on the NAEP reading test in 2011. Oklahoma remains below the national average and Georgia has just reached the national average.
As for black students, fourth-grade math and reading NAEP scores in Georgia and Oklahoma were above the national average of black students in other states when Georgia and Oklahoma embraced universal preschool. Now the scores are at the national average. Only Florida was among the top-10 scorers in reading for disadvantaged children in 2011.
More revealing, the NAEP reading gap between black and white children in Oklahoma was 22 points in 1992. In 2011, it was also 22 points. Georgia had a 28-point spread in 1992. In 2011? Twenty-three points. NAEP called Georgia's results "not significantly different."
William Gormley of Georgetown University and other preschool activists dismiss the ho-hum academic progress of Oklahoma and Georgia on the grounds that building effective programs takes time. But consider Gormley's most recent studies of Tulsa's "early cohort" children who participated in pre-K in 2000-01 and "late cohort" children who participated in 2005-06, released by Georgetown's Center for Research on Children in the U.S. He found that the initial reading and math gains of the early cohort had completely vanished by third grade. This is consistent with studies of Head Start programs, but he attributed it to the infancy of Tulsa's program.
What about late-cohort children? The reading gains for all subgroups—girls, boys and minorities—also evaporated by third grade, but this finding was buried in Mr. Gormley's fine print. The only lasting gain among the late cohort was in the math ability of boys, which the study trumpets.
The math improvement among third-graders who had been to preschool—combined with the initial (though transitory) gains of pre-K in making children "school ready"—is enough of a fig leaf for advocates to declare that universal pre-K "works" and is a "good return on investment." A more realistic report card for the two states:
Lowering teen births: Oklahoma, Fail; Georgia, C.
Raising graduation rates: Oklahoma, Fail; Georgia, Fail.
Raising fourth-grade NAEP reading scores: Oklahoma, Fail; Georgia, C.
Closing the minority achievement gap: Oklahoma, Fail; Georgia, C.
That Obama wants to foist these programs on the rest of the country says something about the reading and math proficiency of his administration.
This column originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.