By Lindsey M. BURKE
The Heritage Foundation
For most American 4-year-olds, early childhood education means any one of a number of nurturing pre-school experiences: a small program in a given neighborhood, a church-based day care, a private pre-school, or early education at home. Parents have many options from which to choose.
At the same time, more and more parents work from home, enabling them to work and take care of their children. Many mothers want to spend the most time possible at home with their children in those early, formative years. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of mothers who work part time indicated that some type of work-home balance was the ideal scenario for them; only 5 percent preferred full-time work.
All of this is important to bear in mind as the administration pushes for universal, taxpayer-funded pre-school-for-all.
While roughly 42 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in government pre-school programs such as state-run programs or the federal Head Start program, most children — 58 percent, in fact — receive their earliest learning and care from private pre-school providers, church-based programs, and — most important — parents, grandparents and other family members.
Families in Virginia are no different. Three-quarters of 4-year-olds are in the care of private providers, home-based centers, or family care, not government pre-school programs.
In stark contrast, the administration envisions the exact opposite scenario: universal, taxpayer-funded government pre-school for America’s children. President Obama first outlined this proposal in his State of the Union address, and provided additional details in a recent speech at a Georgia pre-school.
The administration wants to increase spending at the federal level to fund the expansion of state pre-school programs to serve more 4-year-olds, and increase spending on the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs to “enroll more infants, toddlers and 3-year-olds.”
Such expansive, big-government pre-school programs put the “nanny” in “nanny state.” And naturally, the administration has not revealed the price tag to taxpayers.
Growing government pre-school and child care is bad policy for a variety of reasons. With three-quarters of 4-year-old children already enrolled in some form of pre-school program, and with taxpayer-funded public programs such as Head Start available to low-income families, the president’s proposal will effectively subsidize middle- and upper-income parents (who are already paying for pre-school and childcare on their own) with no new benefit to poor families.
If existing government pre-school programs are not adequately meeting the learning needs of poor children — and evaluations of the federal Head Start program show they aren’t — policymakers should consider ways to reform existing programs, not intervene more in the care of the youngest Americans.
It’s worth taking a closer look at Head Start to understand the type of “pre-school” Washington creates. Head Start, created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, has utterly failed the low-income children it was designed to serve. A scientifically rigorous evaluation of more than 5,000 children found that Head Start had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health or parenting practices of participants.
Yet taxpayers spend $8 billion per year on Head Start, which is just one of 45 existing federal pre-school and daycare programs. Instead of relegating low-income children to underperforming Head Start centers, if the federal government continues to fund the program, states such as Virginia should at least be allowed to make their Head Start dollars portable, following children to a private pre-school provider of choice.
Everyone agrees children should have the best early education opportunities possible. But the administration’s proposal shifts the focus away from the low-income children who are most in need, to a broad daycare subsidy for middle- and upper-income families.
To achieve excellence in early education, we must abandon the presumption that pre-school for all is preferable to family care. Instead, we should work to ensure existing pre-school programs meet the needs of the most disadvantaged children, instead of looking to Washington to raise our children.
Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Distributed by MCT Information.
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