Today’s Albuquerque Journalcontained a report which discussed in glowing terms New Mexico’s expansion of pre-K programs. The reality is not nearly so compelling as Katharine Stevens argues in her new policy brief “Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most.”

The question of how to expand “early childhood” programs in New Mexico has long been one of the most contentious public policy issues in the state. Recently, the Legislative Finance Committee produced a new report “Prekindergarten Quality and Educational Outcomes,”The report makes multiple positive claims about the effectiveness of pre-K that Katharine Stevens addresses in her new policy brief, “Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most.”

In her brief, Stevens discusses several, glaring flaws in the LFC report.

  • Correlation vs. Causation:The LFC report assumes that improved results among students who participated in pre-K programs is the result of those programs. The reality is that participation is voluntary and motivated parents are the ones who will enroll their children in such programs and take the time to ensure they get to school every day. It is no surprise that parents who value the program the most have children who perform better than average.
  • Failure to ConsiderRigorous, Randomized Studies of Pre-K Programs: One of the serious challenges of social science is the relative lack of randomized control groups. There are, however, two important studies of pre-K that use randomized control groups (unlike the LFC or other New Mexico reports). One such study cited by Stevens is from Tennessee and another involved Head Start.

New Mexico has dramatically expanded pre-K spending over the last decade, which provides the opportunity to add to the evidence on pre-K’s effect on academic achievement. Stevens notes, however, that even as New Mexico has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into pre-K its test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained stagnant.  

  • Finally, the LFC misuses the concept of Cost-Effectiveness. In public policy, Stevens writes, “cost effectiveness does not mean showing that the benefit of an intervention outweighs the cost. It means comparing various interventions to determine which ones yield the greatest benefit for resources spent to accomplish a particular policy goal.”

As Stevens concludes: “The fight for pre-K, however well intended, is the wrong fight for children who need our help the most. If New Mexico’s goal is to expand the school system and provide free pre- school to wealthier parents who otherwise have to pay for it, adding a pre-K grade to the public schools makes perfect sense. If the state’s goal is to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children, however, it is a deeply misguided approach.”