‘Learning Challenge’ is Just More Federal Waste in the Making

Published June 21, 2011

Though the U.S. Department of Education rolled out its “Early Learning Challenge” on May 25, it’s not too early to predict failure — likely little or no boost for tots working on their ABCs, and surely a waste of $500 million extracted from taxpayers.

The program, part of the next phase of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top plan, works like its progenitor: To win some of this kickback of federal taxpayer money, states promise great deeds from early education and childcare programs (pre-K to third grade).

Any state doing so, however, invites the feds to point a knife at their back. The federal government will decide what programs and means of administering them merit these taxpayer dollars — and has the power to take them away, just as the Obama administration is threatening to zero out Medicaid payments to Indiana because of the state’s refusal to continue funding Planned Parenthood.

In addition, the feds’ track record in this area is poor, to say the least. The federal government has bungled this crusade for decades, spending $167 billion (in 2009 dollars) since 1965 on Head Start (the central federal program for this age group) to widespread acknowledgement — from the department’s own studies, no less — it has no effect on children beyond first grade. None.

The Department of Education assures us the same people who oversee Head Start will decide which states win Early Learning grants, which is roughly equivalent to having Charlie Sheen decide who should date your daughter.

Those Head Start officials will exert outsized influence on state proposals and the legislative changes states make to boost them. In the last round of Race to the Top, 42 states and the District of Columbia adopted “Common Core” curriculum standards, for example, because the administration made it clear states that did not would be docked on their Race to the Top applications. Several of these states, like Massachusetts, had previously boasted higher standards than the Common Core.

Iowa spent $70 million last year on its early childhood education programs – the cost began at $15 million in 2007. Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, is trying to voucherize the program because, like other states, Iowa is overspending on education and the recession has hit property values so hard the state isn’t taking in close to enough money to pay for it all.

Not only does this suggest that whatever new programs states start with Early Learning money, costs will grow and overwhelm state budgets (as is the general tendency with government programs), it also indicates bottom-up efforts work much better than the top-down plans likely to come from this “challenge.”

The most important and dangerous consequence of the Early Leaning Challenge and Race to the Top in general is how they train states to look to Washington, D.C., for education directives. As teachers’ unions everywhere have taught us, centralizing control away from families is the best way to kill creativity, waste money, stunt local and national economies, and dispirit everyone involved. Creating a frenzy in one, federally directed avenue will just stampede states over a cliff.

JOY PULLMANN is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute. Contact: [email protected]