RGF column: N.M. should think twice about universal pre-K

This piece ran in the Santa Fe New Mexican on June 25.

As we move beyond a contentious series of primaries in both parties and look to the fall election, one of the big issues on the fall ballot is the plan to “tap” New Mexico’s permanent fund to provide universal preschool. For years this has been an agenda item for the State’s left-leaning interest groups. But it only received legislative support with the retirement of Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith.

This November voters will decide whether to “allocate 1.25 percent of the five-year average of year-end market values of the money in the Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education.” The Legislative Finance Committee estimates that the additional allocation would be about $245.7 million in fiscal year 2023. Of that total, $126.9 million would be allocated for early childhood education, $84.6 million to public education, and $34.2 million for the Land Grant Permanent Fund’s other beneficiaries.

The plan is to provide “free,” “universal” pre-K to all New Mexico 3- and 4-year-olds.

Advocates and supporters tout all kinds of supposed benefits of government-funded pre-K, but the best available study of the issue (involving a randomized control) of a similar program that has been in place since 2005 in Tennessee found pre-K had negative impacts on children.

According to the study undertaken by Vanderbilt University, “Children who attended Tennessee’s state-funded voluntary pre-K program during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years were doing worse than their peers by the end of sixth grade in academic achievement, discipline issues and special education referrals. The trend emerged by the end of third grade and was even more pronounced three years later.”

One of the study authors, Dale Farran of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College said of the results, “The kinds of pre-K that our poor children are going into are not good for them long-term.” Furthermore, “[We] have let ourselves get into the idea that what these children need is a lot more academic instruction. … It’s just the opposite. What you would like to give poor children is a feeling of being cared for and being successful.”

While other pre-K studies often seem to show positive results from massive government “investment” in pre-K programs, few of those studies feature a control group. In other words, most studies look at two different groups whose parents chose pre-K and those who didn’t choose it and compare the results. That mostly shows parents who choose pre-K tend to place a high value on education. That skews the results in favor of the programs. There are much more sensible and cost-effective alternatives to “universal” taxpayer-funded pre-K. This might include a system of voluntary home visits for purposes of helping parents learn to be better parents. Alas, those don’t come with a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy and expansion of employment opportunities for teachers.

Unfortunately, the ballot presents a simple “Yes” or “No” option for voters. It is difficult to mount an effective campaign against a ballot measure when the alternative is essentially “do nothing.”

This is just one of the flaws in our state’s numerous “permanent” funds, including the Land Grant Permanent Fund, created in 1893, long before New Mexico became a state. Dedicated funding for beneficiaries may seem like a good thing, but giving government bureaucrats a dedicated stream of money without real accountability or the ability for policymakers to shift resources when needs change is far from ideal.

In Tennessee, where again pre-K was found to have negative outcomes, pre-K is funded by a combination of lottery revenue and general education funds. Sadly, putting pre-K funding on autopilot as New Mew Mexico’s constitutional amendment proposes is even less likely to lead to quality outcomes and accountable results for our children.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.