School districts across California are on a recruitment spree, doing what they can to enroll the state’s 4-year-olds into their year-old pre-K or “transitional kindergarten” (TK) program. Districts are trying to sell parents on TK by using school banners, bus bench ads, billboards, and texting and robocall campaigns. The $2.7 billion plan aims to have 400,000 4-year-olds enrolled by 2025, but it has been off to a sluggish start. Estimates from the Legislative Analyst’s Office put average daily attendance for the 2022-2023 school year at about 91,000, well short of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s estimates.
The idea of having the government in charge of educating 4-year-olds has been promoted for years. Most recently, in his State of the Union speech in February, Joe Biden asserted that “children who go to preschool are nearly 50% more likely to finish high school and go on to earn a two- or four-year degree.”
Right before he became governor in 2019, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom told supporters in San Francisco, “Our role begins when babies are still in the womb, and it doesn’t end until we’ve done all we can to prepare them for a quality job and successful career.”
President Obama touted the preschool idea in his 2014 State of the Union address, claiming research has shown that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is “high-quality early education.”
The National Education Association extols the virtues of TK on its website, claiming that children in early childhood education programs are less likely to repeat a grade, less likely to be identified as having special needs, more prepared academically for later grades, more likely to graduate from high school, and be higher earners in the workforce.
But all the rah-rah talk falls apart when the data are examined.
The U.S. has a near 60-year history of funding early childhood programs in the form of Head Start. The federal government released the last of a three-part longitudinal study of the $8 billion-a-year program in 2012, and the results offered scant cause for jubilation. According to the report’s executive summary: “…there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.”
The 2012 report reinforced some disappointing findings from the study’s second phase, which showed that any gains “had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.”
Other studies purporting to show preschool’s benefits also have failed to prove that spending billions on pre-k is money well spent. Two often cited studies, the Abecedarian and Perry Preschool projects, for example, are now over 50 years old, and involved no more than 60 children. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray wrote in 2013, both studies “were overseen by the same committed, well-intentioned people who conducted the demonstration projects. Evaluations of social programs are built around lots of judgment calls—from deciding how the research is designed to figuring out how to analyze the data. People with a vested interest in the results shouldn’t be put in the position of making those judgments.”
Also in 2013, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Grover J. Whitehurst wrote that the group that went through the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program, a full-day program for 4‐year‐olds from low-income families, “performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though of the children in the control group had no experience as 4-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.” Whitehurst concluded, “Until the field of early education becomes evidence-based, it will be doomed to cycles of fad and fancy.”
Also, regarding the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program, Vanderbilt University research professors Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey found that by second and third grade, “the academic performance of children in the Tennessee Pre-K program lagged the control group of children who did not participate in the program.”
And now, there is most definitely a risk in allowing the government to help raise young children. A 4-year-old these days may be getting an education about gender identity. The Kaplan Early Learning Center, a widely used international educational services company that provides education and training services to schools at all levels, has lessons on “Gender Identity in Preschool Children,” “Confronting My -isms,” etc., ad nauseam. Along those lines, the Evanston-Skokie school district in Illinois has adopted a curriculum that teaches pre-K through third-grade students to “break the binary” of gender. And they are hardly a one-off.
In Los Angeles, the school district hosted a 10-week online Rainbow Club for children as young as four in 2021. Still in existence, the club “is an online meeting for parents and their elementary school-aged children to meet, connect, and talk about topics related to their identities. The goal of the club is to support families of elementary-aged children. The meeting is led by clinicians. Participants talk and do art projects.”
The same office that created the Rainbow Club also created several presentations that push extreme gender theories onto young children. Some even encourage the exploration of the “two-spirit” Native American sexuality, and criticize European settlers who, they claim, “imposed homophobia, rigid binary gender roles, and misogyny” due to their Christian faith.
TK is a bad idea. Parents should not succumb to the temptation to dump their 4-year-olds into a government-run school. It may or may not do damage, but the touted educational benefits of doing so are non-existent. And should a parent run the risk that their little Johnny might come home one day and insist that he be called “Joannie?”
With the program’s slow enrollment, perhaps parents in California are beginning to see through TK.
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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.