In the face of a $1.6 trillion federal budget deficit, a national debt topping $14 trillion, and with Congress debating a plan to cut spending by $6 billion over the next decade, one U.S. lawmaker is proposing a new program entitling parents to federally funded universal preschool and childcare.
The “Foundations for Success Act” by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would allow the subsidy to start when a child reaches just six weeks of age.
Sanders’ bill would begin as a pilot program in 10 states and eventually expand nationwide. States would compete for federal grant money and establish standards, in a process Sanders compares to President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program for K-12 schools.
“As we struggle to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, too many American children do not receive the high quality early care they need,” Sanders said in a statement. “The best way to both address our educational shortcomings and strengthen our economy over the long term is to invest in our children as early as we possibly can.”
The Congressional Budget Office has not estimated the cost of Sanders’ proposal. The federal government spent more than $7 billion in 2010 on the Head Start preschool program for at-risk and inner-city youth.
The federal government should refrain from meddling in preschool, says Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare studies at the Reason Foundation in California.
“The state already has an uneven track record with K-12 education,” she said. “Right now there are many different kinds of preschool programs, and parents have many choices. If the state offers free preschool, it [will be] difficult for private and nonprofit preschools to compete.”
While noting Sanders’ bill promotes ostensibly competitive grants, Snell said the government has a tendency to overshadow all other options.
“We risk diminishing parent choice and creating a one-size-fits-all public preschool,” she said.
Snell also warned Sanders’ bill would create a needless, redundant program.
“We should not be using scarce taxpayer dollars to start new federal preschool programs,” she said. “If this kind of preschool is a federal priority, we should use resources from existing preschool programs like Head Start rather than developing new government programs that duplicate programs that already exist.”
The United States has already made a multibillion-dollar yearly investment in early education at the federal, state, and local levels, Snell said. More than 75 percent of four year olds are already enrolled in public and private preschool programs, “and yet we have not seen large-scale academic improvements from this huge investment in early education.”
“On multiple measures from graduation rates to the performance of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Education Progress, we have seen flat outcomes and little improvement from this long-term investment,” Snell said.
Multiple studies of Head Start, which President Lyndon Johnson helped establish as part of his War on Poverty in 1965, have shown weak outcomes or no change at all despite the program spending more than $150 billion over four decades, Snell said. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study published last year found “few significant differences” in academic outcomes among first graders who participated in Head Start and those who did not.
The weight of research argues against Sanders’ bill, said John LaPlante, a fellow with the Minnesota Free Market Institute.
“If state-funded preschool has a weak record, then it’s a waste of money that could be better used elsewhere—paying teachers better, giving students scholarships for private schools, whatever,” he said.
Government-funded preschool, LaPlante said, is “an instance of government crossing the line between the political culture and the philanthropic one. It’s based on the assumption that government intervention can ameliorate the problems faced by children from less-than-ideal family situations.”
“Private, community-based efforts can make a difference, but even then there are limits to what we can do to fix human problems,” he said. “The problem is more serious once you bring in government, which involves politicians and bureaucracies.”
Appeals to Middle Class Parents
Preschool is a popular cause because voters see it as “‘doing something’ for children,” LaPlante said.
“There’s widespread agreement that kids are not getting the education they need in today’s world, and it’s easier to add something onto the K-12 industry than to make fundamental changes to it,” he said.
Making preschool a universal rather than targeted program is also an obviously political move, LaPlante added, because “any time you open a new spending stream to the middle class, you’re going to boost its political support.”
Several states such as Florida, Colorado, and Missouri have, however, made significant progress with reforms focused on elementary and secondary schools, LaPlante said.
“Florida has taken a multipronged approach,” he said. “They give letter grades to schools, which shames the poor-performing ones and praises the high-achieving ones. They’ve created some school choice programs, and they’ve made some changes in curriculum. They’ve also invigorated the teaching staff by creating one of the leading programs in the nation for alternative paths to getting a teaching certificate.”
As a result, LaPlante said, Florida has experienced impressive improvements in student achievement and significant gains in closing the achievement gap, especially among Hispanic students.
“This record suggests that we benefit when government focuses on reforming its own programs, and enlisting the power of private choice, rather than replacing parents,” he said.
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.