My friend Doug Besharov of AEI gave a great talk on school readiness prograns today at UCLA.
Bottom line: a universal school-based preschool program would cost about $60 billion a year, and its benefits would be marginal. Kids entering school are more likely to have behavioral problems than strictly congnitive ones — as one kindergarten teache is supposed to have said, “Their problem is that they’re sad, mad, and bad, not that they can’t add” — and fixing that requires at least a two-generation approach, which is hard to do in a school-based program.
A program of nurse visits (starting before birth) and continuing for the first three post-natal years could cover about a quarter of each birth cohort — the kids most at risk, based on family factors — for maybe a third of that amount, and the likely benefits would be large. (And include crime reductions as well as improved school performance, I might point out.)
The nurse-visitor programs that work, both here and abroad, involve highly-skilled and relatively highly-paid ($80,000/yr.) public health nurses, not LPN’s from the registry. A big program would run into personnel shortages at first; that’s a serious problem, though not, probably, an insurmountable one.
If each nurse can cover twenty kids, then the direct salary cost of the program would be $4000 per kid per year, times three and a half years of coverage is $14,000 per child. Mark that up 50% for fringes and program overhead and we’re at about $20 billion per year.
About half of the cost could be covered by dumping the WIC program, which distributes mediocre advice and very unhealthy food for about $10 billion a year.
Right then. Dump WIC and spend an additional $10 billion a year (1/1000 of GDP) to make a major impact on the lives of about a million poor kids per year.
That proposal ought to appeal to all the compassionate conservatives and all the hard-headed liberals in Congress. The way I figure it, that would leave us only about 150 votes shy of a majority in the House and maybe thirty-five votes short in the Senate.