In Santa Fe’s increasingly harsh campaign over a proposed 2-cents-per-ounce tax on distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages that’s expected to generate more than $7 million a year for early childhood education programs, the value of pre-kindergarten programs is not part of the debate.
“Our position has always been that we are pro pre-K. We just think funding it in a way that will hurt families and small businesses is not the answer,” said David Huynh, who heads Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K, a political committee backed by the soda industry that has so far poured more than $1 million into the campaign against the tax.
Mayor Javier Gonzales, the face of support for the soda-tax-for-pre-K plan that voters will decide in a May 2 special election, asserts that early childhood education has multiple long-term benefits.
“Knowing what we do, that early childhood education fundamentally improves the lives of children in our community and the lives of their families, we can’t afford not to act,” he said when proposing the plan in November.
He has said pre-K increases future earnings and chances for school success and going on to college, helps keep children from entering the criminal justice system and reduces the need for social services.
Maybe the only doubter in the public conversation is Paul Gessing and his libertarian Rio Grande Foundation, which recently said in a news release that “the effectiveness of pre-K programs nationwide is doubtful.”
There is something of an academic divide over the lasting impacts of pre-kindergarten services. Sometimes, the split appears to come down to evaluating how children do in school down the line versus lifetime improvements in “socio-emotional” or behavioral skills
Many of the studies, like one from 2015 conducted by the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University, show that pre-K programs succeed in preparing children for the next step in their educations, kindergarten.
In a study evaluating Tennessee’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (TN-VPK), which followed the progress of more than 1,000 children from pre-K through third-grade, the Peabody institute found that children who attended the program had significantly higher achievement scores in literacy, language and math, as well as exhibiting better behaviors related to learning and more positive peer relations. The outcomes were especially beneficial for English language learners.
But the same study found that, after kindergarten, differences in school achievement waned between children who attended pre-K and those who didn’t.
“By the end of kindergarten, the control children had caught up to the TN-VPK children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures,” according to the study’s authors.
Other studies have rendered similar results and refer to the phenomenon as “fade out.”
One by Drew Bailey and Greg Duncan, of the University of California-Irvine’s School of Education, and Candice Odgers of Duke University, says that investments in early education programs may be based on “inflated promises.”
“Our work suggests that much of what children learn in early-childhood intervention programs are skills that kids typically pick up in kindergarten or first grade, anyway. Fade out is really a process of other children catching up – learning their letters, learning to count, learning to control their emotions and impulses,” they wrote for a piece that appeared in The Washington Post in February.
For other researchers, though, the fade-out effect is a myth.
James J. Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics, countered Bailey, Duncan and Odgers’ argument in the Post a week later. “It ignores an overwhelming body of recent evidence documenting that so-called fade out doesn’t exist,” he wrote.
Heckman said his analysis of a North Carolina program “shows lasting boosts in I.Q. and socio-emotional skills resulting in greater educational achievement, higher adult wages and significantly better health outcomes.”
Quality is vital
Gonzales campaigned on the idea of bolstering early education programs when he ran for mayor in 2014, and, about a year ago, a childhood working group was formed to develop a plan.
Jeannie Oakes, a former professor at UCLA, education policy researcher, and director of education and scholarship at the Ford Foundation, was part of that group and now serves as a volunteer early childhood policy advisor to the mayor.
She’s well aware of the studies that suggest there’s a fade-out effect, but had a one-word response to them: “Quality.”
“The reason I emphasize that is from the very beginning, the mayor’s plan was to do two things: one, to expand seats available for early childhood programs; and, two, to make sure every seat is in a high-quality program,” she said.
Oakes referenced Heckman’s research on pre-K in North Carolina, which she said affirms other studies that show the fade-out effect doesn’t occur when children are involved in high-quality programs. Aside from cognitive skills, pre-K benefits children behaviorally.
“Quality early childhood education provides persistent boosts in socio-emotional skills, even if the effects on cognitive skills diminish in the short run,” Heckman writes. “The current obsession with cognitive fade out obscures the important fact that socio-emotional skills have greater effects on later-life outcomes than cognitive skills.”
University of New Mexico economist Kelly O’Donnell – part of the group working on the Pre-K for Santa Fe plan – has cited a cost benefit analysis on pre-K by authors at the University of Minnesota. It concludes “the amount of evidence on the positive effects of high-quality early childhood programs is growing” and that every dollar invested in pre-K returns $10.83, from “increased earnings and tax revenues, averted criminal justice system and victim costs, and savings for child welfare, special education and grade retention.”
Oakes says there are many high-quality programs in Santa Fe now. While the infrastructure exists for pre-K, she said, part of the problem is there isn’t room to accommodate everyone who would like to enroll.
Mayor Gonzales says there are approximately 1,000 children ages 3 and 4 in Santa Fe who don’t have access to pre-K programs either because there’s no room for them or their families can’t afford the $900 to $1,400 per month cost to enroll a child. Oakes says the mayor’s proposal calls for the expansion of the high-quality programs and improving others to get them to that level. The plan also subsidizes fees for people who can’t afford it.
“The (Children Youth and Families Department) sets standards for early childhood programs and rates them, so all of the centers in Santa Fe are a part of the CYFD program and they have a rating, so we know where they are, how many children they serve and how many seats are available.”
Oakes said elevating programs to high quality “is built into the program.”
For example, the existing pre-K program offered through the United Way of Santa Fe County is rated as four-star program. As such, United Way, which recently purchased the former Kaune Elementary campus from Santa Fe Public Schools for use as a childhood development center, could use the funding from the sugary drinks tax to help expand its program.
“When they apply for money, if they have a four- or five-star rating, they get money for expansion,” Oakes said. “If it’s a two- or three-star, like the YMCA, which is wonderful and has amazing directors, but doesn’t have the resources to train staff and pay higher wages, they would need to implement guidelines that would need to be adopted to meet a specific plan and specific deadlines that would increase the quality so they could become a four-star program and, in time, bring in more kids.”
Under the draft Santa Fe plan, an early childhood development commission would oversee the program, accept bids, recommend an allocation of funds to specific programs to the City Council and monitor progress through performance measures. The program would be administered through Santa Fe Community College, not the city.
The plan touches on all the conclusions from the Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research report that examined the first four year’s of the state of New Mexico’s pre-school initiative that began in 2005.
It determined that expansion of pre-K programs was warranted, that some aspects of classroom quality needed improvement, and that professional development and teacher training should be expanded.