It’s hard not to wonder if President Obama isn’t the envy of Hillary Clinton’s eye. After all, he has successfully pushed through numerous big government programs that she and Bill championed unsuccessfully some twenty years ago. Obviously, the two biggies are the nationalization of both our health care and K-12 education systems. Now, he is about to make major inroads in an area that is likely closest and nearest to Hillary Clinton’s heart, which is government-funded daycare for ALL. This was her signature issue long before she entered the White House. And yet, Obama is beating her to the punch.
Next week, numerous states, including Indiana, will apply for a new federal grant called the Preschool Development Grant. The funding is intended to move America one step closer to what has always been the ultimate goal – having the taxpayers foot the bill for five day a week, full-day care for 3 and 4-year-olds, with the public schools as the primary provider.
Since that idea is no more popular today, than it was twenty years ago, it has been repackaged and relabeled under the more palatable name of “Preschool,” or “Pre-K” for short. Marketing experts know that for many the term “preschool” conjures up a vision of the small, sweet, two-hour program that operates down the street, likely out of a church. However, these are not the types of programs the federal government wishes to increase and for the taxpayers to fund. They’re not considered “high quality” according to the new federal guidelines published for the Preschool Development Grants. Rather, only programs that are “equivalent to a full school day at the public elementary school” qualify as such. If that stipulation alone doesn’t wipe most private providers out of the picture, the requirement that “instructional staff salaries [be] comparable to the salaries of local K-12 instructional staff” certainly will. In other words, states are being bribed to create new full-day programs, that will ultimately squeeze and regulate out of business the many private programs that currently exist.
The only time the federal government needs to bribe states is when the free-market isn’t behaving according to their central planning wishes. When it comes to the types of care parents choose for their 4-year-olds, three-fourths of whom already attend some type of program, it couldn’t be truer. The fact that well over 80% of these children are in private programs, rather than in one of the 45 federally-funded programs, which taxpayers annually spend $20 billion on, speaks volumes. It says that even today, parents still have strong opinions about who cares for their youngest children and in what types of settings. They tend to prefer small, informal setting, over large impersonal ones.
Additionally, it turns out that for some, maternal care is still a popular choice. Well over 50% of mothers with young children (0-4yrs.) indicated that they would prefer to stay home, while only 16% prefer full-time employment. Of those who work, the vast majority do so only part-time. Thus, it’s not surprising that such families don’t need or want full-day childcare programs. Those who do certainly have a number of programs at their disposal, some of which are free for families that are economically impoverished. Assuming that low to moderate income families only want full-day programs, as the new federal grant does, sells them and their children short. Many parents, poor or not, know intuitively what all of the research shows emphatically – that preschool provides no lasting academic gains beyond the third grade. What matters most and far more is the strength of the family, not the amount of time spent out of the home.
The most notable evidence of this can be seen in the Dec. 2012 Health and Human Services (HHS) evaluation of over 5,000 children participating in Head Start. It found that the $8 billion annual program had “little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health or parenting practices of participants.” When it comes to state programs, one need look no further than Georgia and Oklahoma, both of which have offered universal preschool for 4-year-olds since 1993 and 1998, respectively. And yet, Georgia fourth grade students score just at the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading assessment, while Oklahoma students have actually seen a decline in such scores since they first implemented universal preschool back in 1998.
Rather than pandering to the feds for string-laden money, 35% of which will be spent on setting up a Pre-K “infrastructure” (a.k.a. growing the bureaucracy) in Indiana, Hoosier politicians should chart their own course. They should invest in Hoosier families, rather than in large institutions and bigger government. Governor Pence should lead the way, not only by refusing to sign off on Obama’s Preschool Development Grant, but by beginning a dialogue on a strings-free tax breaks for families with young children. By increasing their disposable income, parents would be free-er to choose what is in their particular child’s best interest, whether it’s for one parent to be able to stay home, for grandma to spend several afternoons a week taking the child to the library, or for the child to attend a preschool of the parent’s choosing. Such a solution would empower families, rather than discriminate against those whose choice might be something other than a long, full-day program for their 4-year old.
Post updated for clarification Oct. 13th, 2014.