unexpected perverse impacts of universal kindergarten

Elizabeth Cascio, an economist at Dartmouth, just published a study on the impact of kindergarten becoming universal in the United States because of state funding in the 1960s and 1970s.

My results indicate that state funding of universal kindergarten had no discernible impact on many of the long-term outcomes desired by policymakers, including grade retention, public assistance receipt, employment, and earnings. White children were 2.5 percent less likely to be high school dropouts and 22 percent less likely to be incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized as adults following state funding initiatives, but no other effects could be discerned. Also, I find no positive effects for African Americans, despite comparable increases in their enrollment in public kindergartens after implementation of the initiatives. These findings suggest that even large investments in universal early-childhood education programs do not necessarily yield clear benefits, especially for more disadvantaged students.

How did she measure this?

I take advantage of the staggered introduction of state funding for kindergarten from the 1960s forward, combined with the fact that children generally attend kindergarten at age five. More specifically, I calculate the average difference in outcomes between individuals who were age five before the introduction of kindergarten funding and children born in the same state who were five years old after the initiative was introduced. I further adjust these comparisons to take into account the fact that kindergarten enrollment was increasing gradually in many states prior to the adoption of state funding.

Why didn’t the program benefit blacks?

She proposes three hypotheses, but the “first of these hypotheses receives the most support in the available data”: “Kindergarten funding disproportionately drew African Americans out of higher-quality education settings.” Specifically, “the introduction of state funding for kindergarten prompted a reduction in Head Start participation among African Americans.”

So universal kindergarten may have actually pulled blacks out of better programs, into lower quality universal programs!

The limited impact – not the perverse outcome – is consistent with the Baker-Milligan-Gruber study showing the following of Quebec’s universal childcare program:

We uncover striking evidence that children are worse off in a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, ranging from aggression to motor-social skills to illness. Our analysis also
suggests that the new childcare program led to more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.

There is clear evidence from some pilots in the USA (Perry Pre-school, Abecedarian, etc.) indicating that programs targeting vulnerable chlidren can have major positive impact, both in social and cognitive impacts. (Summarized by Heckman and Masterov here.) But universal programs may be a less unambiguous win.[end]

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