The push for universal early childhood education has been building nationwide for years and has now reached a fever pitch in Tucson. Advocates claim benefits that include everything from better academic achievement at the primary and secondary school level to lower crime, less drug abuse, and higher incomes in the adult population.

This is accepted as a given by advocates with the only remaining problem, as they see it, being the funding, which is a heaping big problem. A city of Tucson referendum to fund early childhood education with sales tax money was defeated 65% to 35% in 2017.

In a memo in which Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry backed away from picking up the tab. He wrote, “Based on the estimates of the program, such would require an annual investment of $100 million to ensure that all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds receive early childhood education programming.”

Are the advocates correct? Alas, early childhood education has been politicized to a large degree, so objective interpretation of results, or objectively derived results, of studies are difficult to identify; but there are two that are high quality stand outs.

One is the congressionally mandated federal government study of the Head Start program; the other is the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K Program (VPK) study. These studies have a high level of validity because both have large randomly composed study and control groups.

In both studies, it was determined that while preschool students showed academic advantages in kindergarten, those advantages disappeared by third grade with no long-term positive effects. In fact, by the second or third grade, the VPK study showed increased disciplinary problems, increased special education requirements and lower math and science achievement scores among the VPK group as compared to the control.

Advocates point to other programs, such as the Abecedarian Project and Montessori preschools, as examples of success stories. The Abecedarian Project monitored students through adulthood reporting that at age 21 students scored higher on academic tests, were more likely to have attended a four-year college, less likely to be teen parents and less likely to report symptoms of depression than the control group.

So who is correct, the advocates or the critics? The fact of the matter is that they both are. The key lies in the nature of the individual programs. What, for example, made the VPK Program ineffective? The answer is that it treated two and three-year-old children like second graders.

There is a big difference in the physical and cognitive development of preschool and elementary school age groups. The best learning environment for a 3-year-old is exploring and playing in the nurturing company of a parent, not sitting still while an instructor is repeating the alphabet.

Why did the Abecedarian Project achieve such positive long-term results? Its success came from replicating the environment of a nurturing parent at home. In doing so, it prepared children for the next phase of their development, the traditional classroom.

This distinction also explains the politics of the issue. As Auguste Meyrat said in an education article for The Federalist, “One side, usually progressive and statist, believes in the power of experts and standardization and disparages the home as the source of every evil. The other side, usually traditional and libertarian, believes in the power of loving parents and the natural desire to learn and disparages all public institutions as the source of every evil.”

Committing hundreds of millions of dollars to programs that, at best, copy what is already occurring in most homes makes no sense. However, replicating nurturing home environments for small children who would not otherwise have them would yield long-term benefits for society and perhaps break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in our community.

Jonathan Hoffman has lived and worked in Tucson for 40 years. Write to him at tucsonsammy@gmail.com