Politicians staging photo ops with children is nothing new. President Obama stands out, however, for thinking he can grow the middle class with government-run, universal preschool.
He insisted during his State of the Union address that “study after study” shows the benefits of preschool, which translates into savings “by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
However emotionally appealing, the idea that the nanny state is better at jump-starting children’s learning than their parents is not supported by the evidence.
First, the programs the president relied on for his preschool claims did not involve middle-class children. Those programs, dating back to the 1960s, involved small-scale, highly targeted populations of low-income children, including infants and toddlers with learning disabilities.
Next, the early education services those children received encompassed far more than a few hours a day learning to count, reciting their ABCs or tying their shoes. In addition to traditional preschool activities, those children and their families also received an array of family services, including in-home visits, parenting classes and extensive tutoring.
That is why specialists reviewing those programs have admitted there is no scientifically credible way to attribute any benefits to “preschool.” It’s also worth noting that none of the results from any of those programs has ever been replicated — a huge red flag for anyone interested in using them as models.
What’s more, specialists also caution against universalizing programs intended for highly targeted child populations to middle-class children. In fact, David Weikart, past president of one of those targeted programs, the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, has cautioned, “For middle-class youngsters with a good economic basis, most programs are not able to show much in the way of difference.”
Conspicuously absent from the president’s State of the Union plan to grow the middle class through government-run preschool were results from the nearly 50-year-old federal Head Start program, managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Launched in 1965, Head Start started out as a six-week summer catch-up program for about half-a-million disadvantaged pre-kindergarteners at a cost of $96.4 million. Today, this government program costs nearly $8 billion for 964,000 enrollees.
This means the cost of Head Start has skyrocketed from about $172 per participant to more than $7,800 now — 45 times more expensive. Yet results from the most recent Department of Health and Human Services evaluations show Head Start is a dead start.
Evaluation results from 2010 as well as last October show any impacts faded out as early as the end of first grade, and others dissipated by the end of third grade. In terms of cognitive impacts, which are presumably critical to the future job skills for growing the middle class and the economy, the department found “early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school.”
Not only could Health and Human Services not find significant differences between participants and nonparticipants, the department also cautioned, “At the end of third grade, there was suggestive evidence of an unfavorable impact — the parents of the Head Start group children reported a significantly lower child grade promotion rate than the parents of the non-Head Start group children.”
For all the hype about universal — which is to say, one-size-fits-all, government-run preschool — nearly 50 years of facts show it is an expansive, expensive failure.
The impacts of government schooling don’t last past third grade, so how are they supposed to grow the middle class, the economy and individual toddlers’ job skills down the road? The president seems to think it will happen by handing more children and more taxpayer dollars over to the nanny state.
That isn’t the solution. It’s the core problem.
The solution starts by letting parents choose the early education options they think are best for their children.
Let parents who can afford it pay for whatever preschool they wish and take a dollar-for-dollar deduction off their taxes. For parents who cannot afford to do so, establish Early Education Savings Accounts, based on Arizona’s successful K-12 model. Instead of funneling more money into Head Start or other government programs, deposit what would have been spent on a child into parents’ Early Education Savings Accounts, adjusted according to family income and size.
If the benefits of preschool are as potent as hoped, proponents should have no objection to a variety of early-education options, chosen by parents and funded in a fiscally responsible way.
We know what doesn’t work. Let’s empower parents to discover what does work for their children.
Vicki E. Alger is senior fellow and director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum and a research fellow at the Independent Institute.