State Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion recently held a town hall meeting and mounted what appeared to be a one-man assault on early childhood education.
Kintner told the assembled crowd in Nebraska City that universal preschool is a scary idea, a federal government plot, and in fact “a dream of social engineers to get their hands on our kids,” according to news accounts of the meeting.
He reportedly twice promised that he wouldn't vote for any more state money to fund any more education for 2- and 3- and 4-year-old Nebraska children.
Why? Because, Kintner told the crowd, educating these young Nebraska children may in fact be worthless.
“The jury is still out on if early education even works,” he said, and he added that he needs proof.
This teed up a tantalizing question, as least for a nerd like myself. I have long assumed that early childhood education is, like most any sort of education, a good thing. But I had no real proof, for or against.
Does early childhood education really work? Or is the jury still out?
So I spent a week reading studies, including studies that summarize more than a half-century of research into the effectiveness of early childhood education.
I interviewed two of this state's leading experts, one woman who has studied education for more than three decades, and another woman at the center of an Omaha effort to measure what works and what doesn't. I consulted the writings of nationally known educators, sociologists and economists, both left-leaning and right-leaning.
And as it turns out, the jury is very much in.
“Is it a magic bullet? No,” says Helen Raikes, a veteran education researcher who was married to the late State Sen. Ron Raikes. “Is it an inoculation for the rest of a child's life? No.
“But, if done well, will early childhood education make a positive difference in the lives of children? Yes. Yes, of course it will.”
A half-century of evidence, both national and local, supports Raikes' statement. Early childhood education has drawn support from presidents of both parties, including Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, who mentioned the issue in last week's State of the Union address.
In 2010, Rutgers researchers undertook the Herculean task of reading and analyzing the previous 50 years of early childhood education research. The review, which ended up summarizing 120 separate studies, found that children enrolled in pre-K programs do better in school than their peers.
They have better social skills than their peers. They do better on tests and graduate at a higher rate. Basically, in every quantifiable way, early childhood education makes a kid better.
“The current review ... provides even greater weight for the argument that preschool intervention programs provide a real and enduring benefit to children,” the Rutgers analysis says.
So I called Sen. Kintner, whose district includes part of Papillion, all of Cass County and part of Nebraska City, to ask him about his comments about early childhood education.
He pointed out to me that he has repeatedly voted for early childhood education appropriations and said he had been unfairly miscast as an opponent.
He then repeated a variation on the “jury is still out” theme.
“I want to step back and see if the money we spent is effective,” he said.
“What makes you think the money spent is ineffective?” I asked him.
He referenced a study, released last spring, suggesting that educational gains made by a group of Head Start students faded almost entirely by the third grade. This study is often cited by critics of early childhood education as proof that government-funded early childhood education doesn't work.
I had read the same study. I asked if he knew that the study also included information showing that students enrolled in early childhood education graduate from high school more, go to college more, get pregnant as teenagers less and get arrested for felonies less than their peers.
He said he wasn't aware of those parts of the report. Nor was he aware of the mountain of other research showing steady, long-term gains for students enrolled in early childhood education.
Kintner, who had told the town hall meeting that early childhood education is doing “what parents ought to do,” suggested to me that we ought to get parents more involved.
I agreed — who wouldn't? — but of course many of the nation's best pre-K programs already do get parents involved. Research actually shows that educating parents as part of a pre-K program leads to children who are more physically and psychologically healthy and more prepared when they head off to their first day of kindergarten.
Now, let's assume for a moment that you believe it's parents' duty alone to raise their young children. That, if parents fail, it isn't the state's job to pick their kids up and dust them off.
There's still an economic argument to be made for early childhood education, an argument that intervening in the lives of young, poor children actually saves the rest of us cold, hard cash. That argument is made by sources as ideologically different as the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, a Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist and the RAND Corporation.
In Minnesota, every dollar spent on early education returns $8 to that state — money related to everything from a higher-skilled workforce to lower incarceration rates. Another economist studied Chicago's Child-Parent Centers, which were founded in 1967, and determined that every dollar turned into $11 in earnings and savings over those children's lifetimes.
James Heckman, the aforementioned Nobel economist, has done years of research that shows that investing in early education yields a higher annual rate of return than the stock market did from World War II to the Great Recession.
In short, if we invest taxpayer money in kids now, we save a bunch of taxpayer money on unemployment, welfare, medical costs, mental health costs and prison cells later.
I asked Kintner if he had heard the economic arguments for early childhood education. He said he hadn't.
There's more evidence that early childhood education works, and you can find it only a short car ride from Kintner's legislative district.
Educare Omaha takes poor, disadvantaged children — some soon after birth — and educates them year-round until kindergarten.
This isn't cheap: The cost is about $14,000 per student annually. Much of that is funded by existing federal programs, like Head Start or Early Head Start, that the pupils are eligible to receive. Education nonprofits also kick in money to help foot the hefty bill.
Once the Educare students reach grade school, an in-depth study — albeit one with a small sample size — tracks their progress and seeks to determine what, if anything, they gain from their early education experience.
The average low-income Omaha student scored around 85 in third and fifth grades on the state's standardized reading test — far below average. The comparable low-income Omaha student enrolled in Educare for two or more years scored 111.
“A score of 111 is worth celebrating,” says Lisa St. Clair, the University of Nebraska Medical Center researcher who led the study. “111 ... We should be overjoyed. We should be doing cartwheels.”
I asked Kintner if he had heard of Educare in Omaha. He said, “I probably have run across it at some point.”
I told Kintner about the results of the Educare study, and the cartwheel-worthy results.
“I just want to see what we're doing in the state,” he repeated. “Let's look at the money spent. If it's not working, let's do less of it. If it's working, let's do more of it!”
Near the end of my conversation with the state senator, I looked at the research strewn across my desk and realized something.
Listen, I said. I have all these local and national studies that demonstrate the effectiveness and the vital importance of early childhood education.
Can I send you this research? Would you like to look at it yourself?
You bet, said Kintner.
“There's no such thing as too much knowledge,” he said.
I couldn't agree more.