Here’s why so few states have universal pre-K programs
4 min read

Here’s why so few states have universal pre-K programs

Next Gen
May 31
4 min read

Part of the union-backed constitutional amendment being circulated around the state right now would force the state to dramatically expand welfare programs. One of these programs is universal pre-k, which—along with other universal programs—would cost Arkansans more than $1 billion per year.

While proponents of the measure have no cost projections of their own—yet still claim the returns would be “9 to 1”—the reality is that “universal” proposals like universal pre-K benefit the wealthiest Arkansans, cause more harm than good, and are wildly expensive.


“Universal” may sound nice and innocent at first—it might even sound like it would help truly needy Arkansans. But because of the language in the proposed constitutional amendment, the pre-K program would be universal, meaning there would be no income or eligibility limits whatsoever. Every child, not just those from low-income households, would be eligible. This obviously includes children from very high income households.

For example, a family with a net worth of $100 million would qualify for universal pre-K, courtesy of Arkansas taxpayers. Low-income, working Arkansans would continue paying all sorts of taxes—and likely even higher taxes—and the funds would be redistributed to rich families to pay for “free” child care.

It would be a subsidy for the financially well-off with no limits, caps, or requirements of any kind.

How ironic and hypocritical: The same groups that claim (with no evidence) that Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) only benefit “the rich” would dramatically expand welfare to…you guessed it, the rich.


And would these massive new expenses and redistributions of wealth be worthwhile? Probably not. Based on a wide body of available research, the purported benefits of universal pre-K are dramatically overstated.

One 2014 study found that the research underlying universal pre-K experiments suffers from fatal methodological flaws.

Another report from Tennessee that separated children into one group that received pre-K and another control group that didn’t found there were “no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures.”

Worse yet, a study from Quebec, Canada found that the program created a storm of disasters, including:

  • The near-elimination of private child care providers due to crowding out by government;
  • An increase in social anxiety among child participants; and
  • A dramatic spike in the likelihood of child participants to later be convicted of a crime, including a 4.6 percent increase in likelihood for overall crime and a 17 percent increase in likelihood for drug crimes.

Even a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that, in its Head Start program, “the advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of first grade.”

The results of these studies and experiences refute the vague and unproven claims by activists that the proposed changes would somehow generate “9-to-1” returns relative to the costs.

(Bear in mind, these are the same activists who admittedly don’t know how much their own proposals will cost. But rest assured, they know it will be good for you!)

At best, universal pre-K-type programs yield no benefits. At worst, they are actually associated with causing harm for kids, not to mention taxpayers.


As Opportunity Arkansas has previously pointed out, universal pre-K alone would blow a massive hole in the state’s budget at a cost of $350 million per year. This would not only place an immense burden on taxpayers from all income brackets, but it would also almost surely eliminate the prospect of a future tax break from phasing out the state’s income tax.

When you add on the other welfare proposals contained in the ballot amendment, already-overtaxed Arkansans are facing a $1 billion per year bill–or possibly even more, depending on how the programs are constructed and how many Arkansans were to enroll.

And as it turns out, other states have already come to the conclusion that universal pre-k is insanely expensive and has failed to live up to its stated goals.


Vermont’s approach to universal pre-K most closely resembles what the organizers of the Arkansas union-backed amendment are hoping to achieve in Arkansas. The Green Mountain State’s experience should serve as a warning rather than a model to copy.

In 2021, Vermont spent an astonishing $52.3 million on its universal pre-K program, or about $7,925 per student. That rises to an eye-popping cost of $8,811 per student when including federal dollars. And between 2014 and 2021, spending on pre-K in Vermont spiked by nearly 22 percent.

Consider that Vermont has less than one-fifth the student population of Arkansas, and yet is spending this incredible amount of more than $50 million per year on pre-K. In fact, it may be spending even more than the state is indicating: A new report found that “Vermont is understating the cost of pre-K”.

And yet for all that spending, Vermont’s academic standing continues to decline. According to the state’s Agency of Education annual snapshot, standardized test scores in key subject areas have declined, including among students who were part of the universal pre-K population. Many of these declines began prior to the COVID-19 school shutdowns.

Put simply, Vermont’s universal pre-K experience can be summed up as three things: bigger government, more spending, and worse outcomes for students.


Before voters buy into the platitudes drummed up by union activists in favor of the ballot amendment, Arkansans should simply examine what has played out elsewhere.

Is a $350 million per year universal pre-K program worth crowding out other private care providers, like in Quebec?

Is it worth busting the budget, like in Vermont?

Is it worth no improved outcomes, like in Tennessee?

And is it worth making Arkansas students guinea pigs in an experiment that only three states have even bothered to try?

Arkansans deserve the facts about what universal pre-K would mean once it is cemented into the state’s constitution—not the fiction spun up by the left-wing advocates who can’t even identify how to pay for it.

Image of the story authorHayden Dublois
Visiting Economist

Hayden Dublois is the Visiting Economist at Opportunity Arkansas. His primary research areas are welfare, health care, workforce, unemployment, and tax policy.

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