PoliGraph: Cornish pre-K claim misses mark


The legislative session may be over, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop hearing about pre-kindergarten any time soon.

The issue was a major flashpoint between Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration and legislators, including DFLers in the Senate.

It came down to this: Should the Legislature set aside millions to fund pre-kindergarten in all public schools or boost overall school spending and target other dollars to families who are least likely to be able to afford quality early education?

Ultimately, Dayton and legislators settled on the latter option, passing a $17 billion education bill.

But in the final hours of the special session, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said the money isn’t well spent in the first place.

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“It’s a great babysitting service. But you have no empirical evidence to prove that pre-K doesn’t wear off by third or fourth grade,” he said during debate over the bill.

Cornish is relying on one study, though reputable, to make his case while ignoring a pile of conflicting evidence.

 The Evidence

Cornish is basing his statement on a high profile federal study that looked at how kids in Head Start, a national public pre-school program, were doing by the time they reached third grade. The study got a lot of attention, and generated a whole lot of new research.

According to the study, which was released in late 2012, the Head Start kids were doing better academically while they were in the program. But by the time they got to third grade, those benefits had dissipated.

Abbie Lieberman of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative said there are other studies that demonstrate the “fade-out” effect.

But Lieberman added that there are all sorts of caveats that come with those trends, as well as the Head Start study.

For instance, she said the changes may have more to do with kids who didn’t go to quality pre-kindergarten effectively catching up with their peers who did.

Furthermore, a lot depends on the quality of the program; the Head Start study averaged gains across programs, and not every program is good, she said.

And not all school districts do a good job of sustaining academic gains in subsequent grades, which may account for the changes, she added.

Cornish also said that there isn’t any good model in the United States to demonstrate the benefits of what Dayton proposed – universal pre-kindergarten in public schools.

But there’s at least one: Oklahoma runs its universal pre-school program through the public schools, and it appears to be successful. One study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science found that the program improved school readiness.

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and an early childhood learning expert.  He said Cornish’s statement is “clearly false.”

First, Bartik pointed out that test scores often fade in third grade, but don’t zero out completely.

“The effects seem to gain strength at older ages,” Bartik said. “This is probably due to effects on skills unmeasured by tests, such as so-called ‘soft skills,’” like social skills.

He said there are other lasting positive effects, too, like higher earnings and employment rates, and lack of involvement in crime.

One way to get a better idea of whether pre-kindergarten is beneficial in the long run is to look at studies of studies.

A study, also published in Science and spearheaded by the National Institute for Early Education Research summarized 123 papers written on the issue since 1960 and found that, ““Overall, looking across the entire research literature over four decades… preschool has substantial impacts on cognitive development, on social and emotional development, and on schooling outcomes.”

The Verdict

Cornish isn’t completely out of line; he is basing his claim on a high-profile, long-term study that had plenty of smart, qualified people behind it.

But Cornish’s claim obscures some pretty important facts.

There’s plenty of peer-reviewed and published research that shows there are lasting-benefits for kids who attend quality – and quality is the key word, here – pre-K. Those benefits include higher earnings, fewer interactions with the criminal justice system and better social skills, as well as better academic outcomes.

For relying on one source of information in spite of there being plenty of contradictory research out there, Cornish earns a false.