Does Universal Pre-K Involve a Moral Hazard?

Kevin Drum was for universal pre-k long before it made it into the President’s State of the Union speech this week. Today he has a post at Mother Jones titled “The Biggest Value of Pre-K Can’t Be Found in Test Scores.” Drum concedes, based on his reading of the data, that pre-k’s “long-term effect on reading and math test scores is fairly weak.” But he believes there are other compelling reasons to recommend it:

pre-K does seem to increase high school completion rates;
reduce rates of substance abuse; reduce felony rates; increase lifetime
income; and improve non-IQ cognitive traits like the ability to delay
gratification, the ability to hold a job, and the ability to control
your temper.

In another post on the same topic (“Building Better Kids“) Drum adds “there’s a growing body of evidence that especially bad home environments cause permanent biological damage and can do it before the age of two.” So Drum’s positive argument is that pre-k can teach self-control to toddlers who won’t otherwise learn it. His alternative argument is that, for some kids, spending less time at home would be a good thing. By abandoning the academic case for pre-k in favor of one focused on issues of home environments and socialization, Drum is at least partly arguing for public intervention in bad parenting.

Indeed, Drum uses a chart which shows that by far the biggest gains are for children whose mothers didn’t finish high school. Put aside the irony that the failure of
public schools is going to be remedied
by an expansion of public schools. Drum is acknowledging that the program is really aimed at overcoming the poor choices of the child’s parents, i.e. not finishing high school, having a child with no reasonable means of support and whatever else constitutes a “bad home environment.” Universal pre-k may indeed be good for these children but it seems possible it could also encourage more drop-outs, more absentee fathers, etc. You usually get more of whatever you choose to subsidize.

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