- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

By Chester E. Finn Jr.
Education Next/Hoover Institution Press, $15, 99 pages

Spend enough time observing the debates over American education, and you learn that there’s always one faction that believes the problems of our schools will be solved if only more money is thrown at them. Barring fiscal crises, this side usually wins the debates, until the proposed innovation fails (as it usually does). Then the big-government advocates come back asking for even more money.

As with most public policy, the fronts in the education wars are always shifting, and right now, the issue is whether or not to provide every American 4-year-old (and possibly every 3-year-old) federally subsidized preschool. On the campaign trail, President Obama declared that he would boost federal spending on early childhood education by $10 billion. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when he headed the Chicago schools, vastly increased the ability of city public schools to provide classes for preschoolers.

But is a new federally funded preschool program a good idea? Chester E. Finn Jr. doesn’t think so. Mr. Finn is a Hoover Institution senior fellow and president of the Thomas E. Fordham Institute (for which I once wrote a book review). His little book is essential reading for anyone concerned about this substantial expansion of the federal role in education.

It turns out that the principal force behind establishing national preschool subsidies is the Pew Charitable Trusts, the most enthusiastic supporter of big government among the large foundations. Led by program officer Susan Urahn, Pew has spent $50 million since 2006 setting up lots of nominally independent organizations in the hopes of creating the illusion of a massive chorus demanding more federal funding for preschoolers. This tactic duplicates Pew’s successful efforts to pass campaign finance reform.

Mr. Finn, however, thinks the efforts of the Pew-funded preschool advocates are misguided. He asks several hard questions that ought to be answered before a national preschool subsidy is created.

He points out that there’s lots of federal funding out there already. A team led by the University of Maryland’s Douglas J. Besharov calculated that in fiscal 2005, the six biggest federal programs doled out $23.5 billion in preschool aid. With all that cash, why is a new federal preschool program needed?

Mr. Finn also looks at Head Start, which was designed to be an intensive learning program. All of the researchers who have studied Head Start have found that the program does little or nothing to help children do well in school. In 2005, a national test of 4-year-olds found that some Head Start students knew two more letters than their non-subsidized counterparts but that Head Start had no effect on math, vocabulary, oral comprehension or the readiness to learn.

The response of Head Start’s advocates to their program’s failure was to declare that Head Start actually was a child care program and not an education program. (That’s why Head Start is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Department of Education.) Nevertheless, Mr. Finn asks, if we can’t establish good standards for Head Start after 40 years, why should we assume that a similar national preschool project will have firm, unyielding standards?

Moreover, Mr. Finn contends, proponents of the national preschool program significantly underestimate its costs. Suppose we give every 4-year-old a federally funded program and spend $9,000 per child, which is the amount spent on Head Start and is about the national per-student average for public schools. This would amount to $36 billion a year — or as much as the entire federal education budget for kindergarten-through-12th-grade education before the stimulus.

Because about 85 percent of 4-year-olds are in some sort of preschool, nationalizing preschool programs would displace $30 billion currently being spent on private programs. “Because universal programs are by definition not means-tested,” Mr. Finn writes, ” the windfall effect would include the families of professors, neurosurgeons and trust-fund beneficiaries as well as waitresses, bus drivers and migrant workers.” Is a universal preschool subsidy, Mr. Finn asks, a wise use of tax dollars?

Mr. Finn charges that “much of the push behind universal pre-K has less to do with needy kids than with the public education establishment’s craving to enlarge its market, its budget, and its mandate.” He prefers a more limited program specifically targeted to the children of low-income families most at risk of falling behind in first grade.

In “Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut,” Mr. Finn asks us what’s the right thing to do about preschool — help 4-year-olds who are poor and struggling or satisfy the insatiable public education establishment’s unlimited cravings for tax dollars?

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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