Denver's preschool tax is a mistake

By Krista Kafer ( Last night the Denver City Council approved asking voters to increase taxes for the next ten years to fund preschool programs for all four-year-olds. So the proposal will now go to the ballot in November, where it may pass -- or go down in flames as Prop 82 did in California, despite Hollywood Rob Reiner’s support.

Advocates will tell you that 12 cents out of a $100 sale (an estimated $12 million a year) is a small price to pay for a huge return. In the words of Mayor John Hickenlooper, “quality affordable pre-school for their children is a critical part of improving our public schools [his emphasis], increasing economic opportunity, and reducing burdens on our public safety and criminal justice systems. Early childhood education’s documented return on investment leads me to support this initiative…”

His words echo a familiar theme: A dollar spent to provide preschool saves society three, four, even $10 dollars down the road because kids who receive preschool are less likely to commit crime, be unemployed, go on welfare, etc. Sounds great doesn’t it! But is it true? Not really. The savings touted by advocates are derived from a small program for highly disadvantaged students that yielded some benefits for some participants. Upon close examination, the results are far less impressive than advocates would have you believe. See for example this report from the Goldwater Institute. Moreover, the program’s results have yet to be replicated.

The results of larger programs, such as Head Start, are more typical. Initial gains fade out over time, the Heritage Foundation has found, leaving participants undistinguishable from non-participants. So too, Georgia’s 10-year, $1.5 billion experiment in universal pre-K has had equally dismal results: Participants are once again undistinguishable from non-participants.

Saying that preschool will cure society of its ills is like saying Kool-Aid prevents cancer; the logic being that Kool-Aid contains vitamin C, vitamins are important to health and disease prevention, ergo Kool-Aid prevents cancer. The truth is that while some children who receive little nutrition could benefit from drinking Kool-Aid, it will not inoculate them from disease.

Similarly, preschool can help some children from deprived home environments gain needed skills, but it is not the panacea touted by pre-K advocates. The Denver City Council would do well to invest elsewhere. Better yet, they should let families keep more of their hard-earned money.