The last 10 years have seen enormous growth in the amount of state and federal funding being directed towards creating pre-kindergarten programs. In spite of a grim economic climate nationally, state pre-kindergarten programs were slated to receive $5.3 billion in state and federal funding next year (Pre-K Now, October 2009, 2). Why are pre-kindergarten programs becoming a major target of public spending? Many pre-kindergarten programs have been funded in the hope that they will help low income children be better prepared for kindergarten and that they will narrow the achievement gap and earnings between lower and upper income children as they grow to adulthood. So where does Perry Pre-School fit into this picture?
The Perry Pre-school Project was a two year, high quality early childhood education program offered to low income children in Ypsilanti, Michigan in the late 60’s. The notable thing about Perry Pre-School is that its original researchers created equally sized control (children who did not participate in the program) and experimental (children who did participate in the program) groups at the beginning of the project. Then they tracked each group of children for the next 40 years to measure how the control and experimental groups did on various indicators as they grew to adulthood. For instance, they tracked whether or not the children failed grades, were suspended in school, became teenage mothers, graduated from high school, went to college, went to prison, how much they earned in adulthood, how often they used welfare and food stamps, etc.
Forty plus years into the program they can now demonstrate that children who participated in Perry Pre-School at ages 3 and 4 have lead significantly more productive and stable lives. For instance, they were less likely to fail grades in school, less likely to be suspended, less likely to go to jail, less likely to be teen parents, more likely to go to college, more likely to be employed, etc. All of these findings on the experimental group were then compared with the results of the control group in order to calculate the long range cost savings associated with having participated in the program. Researchers then compared the cost savings generated by program participants to the initial cost of providing them with high quality pre-kindergarten. For many years, this return on investment (ROI) was calculated for Perry Pre-School as being either 16 or 17 to 1. In other words, for every dollar invested in the program, the program participants cost society $16 or $17 less than they would have if they had not gone through the program (Rolnick & Grunewald 2003, Belfield et al., 2006).
This fall, Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman revisited the earlier work of the return on investment from Perry Pre-School to determine the accuracy of the estimated ROI. They found that due to errors in earlier estimation analysis, the ROI for Perry Pre-school has been overstated. They describe an estimated ROI of between $7 and $10 for every dollar invested in Perry. While this is much smaller than the earlier estimates, it still represents a substantial return (Heckman et al., November 2009).
Given the reality that much of the enthusiasm for investing in state pre-kindergarten programs has been fueled by the promise of generating large ROI’s for the next generation, it remains to be seen whether or not a $7 to $10 ROI is large enough to inspire lawmakers nationwide to continue to invest in these programs. It should also be noted that Perry Pre-School was only able to demonstrate a $7 to $10 ROI after 40+ years of tracking its participants. None of our current state pre-kindergarten programs has existed long enough for us to know whether or not they will prove as cost-effective as Perry Pre-School.
Belfield, C.R., Nores, M., Barnett, W.S., Schweinhart, L., (2006). The High/Scope Perry Preschool program: Cost-benefit analysis using data from the age-40 followup. Journal of Human Resources, 41, 1, pg. 162-190.
Heckman, J.J., Moon, S.H., Pinto, R., Savelyev, P.A., Yavitz, A. (November 2009). The Rate of Return to the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. NBER Working Paper No. 15471. [Accessed November 11, 2009] http://www.nber.org/papers/w15471.pdf
Pre-K Now. (October 2009). Votes Count: Legislative Action on Pre-K Fiscal year 2010. Washington D.C.: Pew Center on the States. [Accessed November 10, 2009]
Rolnick, A., Grunewald, R. (2003). Early childhood development: Economic development with a high public return. Tech.rep., Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Minneapolis, MN.