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The biggest benefit of pre-K might not be education

Teacher Jane Pan, science coach Jack Ruolo, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver sit in a pre-K classroom during a visit at P.S.1 on Henry St. on April 3, 2014 in New York City.
Teacher Jane Pan, science coach Jack Ruolo, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver sit in a pre-K classroom during a visit at P.S.1 on Henry St. on April 3, 2014 in New York City.
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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

One of the most common arguments in favor of universal pre-K is the argument that it will actually save money: $7 for every $1 invested, according to President Obama's proposal for expanding pre-K access. Some studies have found an even higher return — as high as $16 to $1 — on investment from sending 4-year-olds to school.

This isn't because of the educational benefits of pre-K. Some studies have found that gains in test scores gradually fade out as children continue through public school.

Instead, the cost-savings reflect an unexpected side-benefit of early education: children who participated in pre-K in some studies were less likely to commit crimes, or to be arrested, later in life.

That's why police chiefs are one of the most unlikely backers of proposals for universal pre-kindergarten. Still, most of the studies that show pre-K reduces crime are also studies that pre-K skeptics criticize the most, saying those programs are hard to replicate at a state or national level.

Some studies have found children who went to pre-K were less likely to be arrested later in life

The statistics on crimes committed by children who attended pre-K as four-year-olds come from three long-term studies of children living in poverty: the Perry Preschool project in Michigan, the Abcedarian Project in North Carolina and Chicago Longitudinal Study.

The Perry Preschool project, which sent 65 poor children living in poverty in Ypsilanti, Michigna, to pre-K between 1962 and 1967, found that children who attended pre-K were much less likely to be arrested for any type of crime by age 40:

Screen_shot_2014-07-30_at_4.23.32_pm The Chicago Longitudinal Study studied 900 low-income children in Chicago that were assigned to "child and parent centers" that provided parenting assistance, early childhood education and other services. University of Minnesota researchers found that participants were less likely to be arrested or incarcerated 25 years after they had participated in the program, when compared to nonparticipants:

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In both cases, the lower likelihood of interacting with the criminal justice systems is what makes public spending on pre-K look like such a good deal. James Heckman, an economist who has studied the Perry preschool project, estimated it saved society $7 to $12 for every $1 invested. Most of those savings came from reduced crime.

The Chicago Longitudinal Study saved about $11 for every $1 invested for preschool-aged children, and researchers estimated that two-thirds of those savings were due to lower crime costs.

Participation in Head Start, the federal early childhood program, also reduced crime among black participants relative to siblings who did not participate, but a 2009 analysis of more recent participants found no effect on criminal activity.

But other studies have found little to no effect on crime

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President Obama in a pre-K classroom in Washington DC. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

The third long-term longitudinal study of pre-K participants, the Abcedarian Project, found that while pre-K programs helped in other areas of participants' lives, it had no effect on criminal activity. (That's in part because the control group had low crime participation rates too, so it would be harder for any difference to show up.) As a result, while cost-benefit analyses of Abcedarian have still found it was a good investment, the rate of return was much lower — about $2.50 for every $1 invested — because there was little effect on crime.

The dramatic effects of the Perry Preschool project are indisputable. But it's also unclear if the Ypsilanti preschool experience, which featured small class sizes and a specialized curriculum, can be scaled up to a full city or state. Providing high-quality pre-K is much more difficult than enrolling children in any kind of early childhood education. The Chicago program was for children ages 3 to 9, a much longer intervention than most publicly provided pre-K.

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