Studying new preschool programs could bolster success evidence but cost is a barrier

Indianapolis preschool advocates are pondering a rare opportunity: What if they could help prove that spending money on preschool helps poor children learn and do better in school?

While there is strong evidence that preschool makes a big difference, high-quality studies that show those effects can be difficult and costly, so there aren’t a lot of them.

As Indianapolis begins offering preschool aid for about 1,300 children, the program creates a perfect setting for a “gold standard” study that compares students who enroll in preschool to similar students who apply but aren’t selected. The method is called a “randomized control” study.

The questions are: who would do the study and who would pay for it?

City officials and business leaders say they are weighing the pros and cons of trying to dig up more dollars to study Mayor Greg Ballard’s Indianapolis preschool program, which will use city and philanthropic funding to pay preschool tuition, to see how much it boosts the progress of poor three- and four-year-olds who receive the aid.

“A study of that nature would be of state and national significance,” said former Deputy Mayor of Education Jason Kloth, who worked with the City Council to get the program approved late last year. “It’s just really important to do it right.”

Arguably the most well-known such preschool study, known as the Perry Preschool Project, started in the 1960s in Ypsilanti, Mich., and studied a group of 123 children through age 40. It showed children who had high-quality preschool did better than those who missed out on the program throughout their lives. For example, they did better in school, made more money in their future jobs and were less likely to commit crimes, according to HighScope, which ran the study.

But some Indiana politicians have been skeptical about spending state money on preschool, citing conflicting evidence. Some studies have showed that higher test scores in early elementary school for children who had high-quality preschool may fade by the third grade. Preschool advocates say the evidence of benefits later in life is stronger than the “fade out” theory.

Some Indianapolis business leaders are intrigued by the possibility that a study of the program could win over the skeptics. The program struggled to garner political support despite intense business community lobbying and a $20 million commitment of private matching dollars from a group of companies led by Eli Lilly and Co.

The Indianapolis program will spend $40 million over five years on preschool tuition starting this fall. The public-private aid program finally won funding from a divided city council when it approved an initial $4.2 million to pay for the first year in March.

Demand has been huge.

A lottery was used to select which of the 4,967 qualified applicants received up to $6,800 annually for children who attend full-day preschool and at least $2,500 for half-day programs. Last summer, Ballard’s office estimated as many as 6,000 poor Indianapolis families would place their children in preschools if they had financial help. The city nearly met its goal of 5,000 applicants.

The program aims to serve the poorest children first: those from families with annual income below $55,000 for a family of four. About 87 percent of applicants had income at or below that level. About 98 percent of applicants had annual income of $80,500 or less for a family of four.

Jeff Kucer, vice president of PNC Bank, which rallied around the preschool program along with other corporate sponsors last year, said he’s seen enough research to know that preschool pays off in the long run.

But the effort to gain support for a broad statewide preschool aid program funded by the legislature, he said, could be helped by local data demonstrating the city’s program is making a difference.

“I do think there are people out there that aren’t convinced,” Kucer said. “If this study would prove it, ultimately it’s going to be worth the money.”

Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, who has advised Kloth on the pros and cons of a study, said the cost range is big depending on the features of the study, ranging from several hundred thousands of dollars to as much as $1 million.

“They’re expensive, they’re time-consuming, but they are raised as the gold standard of what studies should be, so we can have good information about whether a particular strategy is a good investment,” Mo said.

But some are skeptical of the idea, including United Way’s Director of Public Policy Andrew Cullen. He said his organization, which is administering the city program, would rather spend money on providing more preschool scholarships.

“In order for there to be a randomized control trial, you must have a group of children who are not receiving high-quality early childhood education,” Cullen said. “It would be an interesting research project for sure, but I think for the time being we’d rather be focused on expanding quality and access than by investing significant dollars in a study.”

Separately, the state is spending $1 million to work with Purdue University on a study of the effectiveness of the state’s On My Way preschool pilot program, which has expanded to serve about 1,600 children in five counties. The program was championed by Gov. Mike Pence and signed into law in 2014. The study was a key component that help persuade some reluctant Republicans to sign on to the bill that created the program.

Melanie Brizzi, who directs the Indiana FSSA’s Office of Early Childhood and Out of School Learning, said the idea of that study is to get a comprehensive picture of the program’s effectiveness by evaluating the participants through third grade.

Students will be randomly selected and evaluated on factors including their social, emotional and cognitive growth, academic achievement, behavioral programs, absenteeism, Kindergarten retention,and placement in special education, she said. But the effort won’t qualify as a gold standard study.

The more study of preschool, the greater the chance of unearthing information that can help preschools do better, Brizzi said.

“The amount of research being conducted is incredible and it’s a huge opportunity,” Brizzi said. “We have tremendous opportunities to provide preschool in a way that meets parents’ needs. …  (This) has the added benefit of raising the bar of quality for all children.”

For now, Indianapolis’ new director of the Office of Education Innovation Kristin Hines, who replaced Jason Kloth after he left earlier this year, said city officials are studying the issue.

“It’s certainly a conversation that we are willing to explore, and we’re supportive of the process in theory,” Hines said. “We just want to make sure it’s done in the right way.”