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Preschool        < Previous        Next >


It's an Urban Myth That Spending $1 on Free Preschool Now

Saves $7 in 'Social Costs' On Down the Road


Q. I've heard the statistic several times that spending $1 on free preschool for low-income children today will save at least $7 on down the road when they are teenagers, in costs that we won't have to pay for increased law enforcement costs, juvenile delinquency and jail. I've heard preschool today results in fewer dropouts in the future, as well as fewer teenage pregnancies and higher adult incomes for the disadvantaged. Isn't it smart to get the at-risk population off to a good start in school? Isn't free preschool a preventive measure?


Ironically and paradoxically, no. Look at the generations that have had free preschool under Head Start at a taxpayer cost in the billions of dollars since the 1960s.


The poverty, academic underachievement, crime and drug abuse statistics in the population served by Head Start are all on a downward spiral, even worse off than before Head Start. And that's even though Head Start, a free preschool program, is billed as a "one-stop shopping" service that provides for the children physically, emotionally, nutritionally, academically and every other way.


Much less expensive interventions that preserve parental control instead of shifting it to the government are much better for children, parents and taxpayers in both the short run and the long run. These include, most of all, tax and welfare policies that allow one parent to stay home full-time to care for the children, along with child development training, respite-care and crisis-care services, job retraining, nutrition services delivered in the home, and other social services directed at helping the parent become self-sufficient and capable, rather than transferring responsibility for the child from the parent to the government, as these


The "spend $1 to save $7" claim is a gross exaggeration. There was one limited study in which researchers attempted to connect preschool expenditures to a more positive outcome for some of the children who attended that preschool than might otherwise have happened. But it was based on assumptions and conjectures, not facts.


This study was based on the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, launched in Michigan in 1962 by Dr. David Weikart. But it was far from analogous to mainstream U.S. society. The program served a severely disadvantaged segment of the population.


The oft-repeated claim of $7 saved in social costs for every $1 spent on preschool comes from this program, but is basically bogus: the researchers assumed that for every documented arrest of a study participant, that person committed four more crimes for which they were never arrested. That's not statistically valid. In addition, it is not valid to compare severely disadvantaged preschool children to convicted criminals; that is a false inference on its face.


At any rate, critics pointed out that there are so many other variables that could have affected those positive outcomes that it is neither scientific nor valid nor responsible to characterize it as an input-output relationship.


What are those other variables? Well, there could have been a charismatic minister who moved into the neighborhood and attracted many of the youngsters to faith-based programming that turned the tide. Or there might have been extraordinary teachers in the grade school, not available to all children everywhere. Or some of the most at-risk families might have moved away, significantly changing the "pool" of children in the study group. Or the local police department might have changed the way it accounted for juvenile offenders, so that there might actually have been MORE law enforcement expenditures associated with that group of students as teenagers, just not in the same categories as measured when they were in preschool.


The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study is still frequently lauded as "proof" that a huge preschool investment will pay off on down the road, as are two similar projects, the Carolina Abecedarian Project, begun by Craig T. Ramey in 1972, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers study, conducted by Arthur J. Reynolds since 1985. When you look in to them a little further, you find that they by no means give the public the great return-on-investment that they claim to give.


Homework: For more information on the $1 to $7 claim, see:


For a good overall review of pre-k programs, see and also search articles by Krista Kafer on, and articles on universal preschool on


By Susan Darst Williams Preschool 05 2008


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