Washington’s Preschool Push Ignores the Real Problem

Published May 10, 2013

In 1965, almost no parents put their three-year-olds in nursery school. Now, two in five three-year-olds attend, and two-thirds of four-year-olds do. Government preschool enrollment has doubled in the past ten years, to nearly a third of the nation’s small children. This indicates two bad things: More tots getting pre-remediation and conservative lawmakers joining their liberal colleagues in addressing this at the fruit rather than the root.

As President Barack Obama runs about trying to engage states in another “the feds will tax and indebt your people more now so we can all tax them even more later” scheme with his Medicare-like preschool proposal, it’s time for Republicans to start thinking as much about small children as they are about illegal immigrants.

In short, Republicans have been capitulating to the idea that preschool is the next entitlement our country needs and getting nothing worthwhile in exchange for voting for such programs. The conversation has been “How big should the program be?” rather than “Why do we need this?”

It is well-known that children from middle- and upper-income families do not need preschool. Their parents teach them to recognize capital letters and count. Such families use preschool as essentially a luxury, a way for mommy or daddy to get some sanity time or work done, or so the little people can have super play time. But lifestyle preferences are not a valid reason for taxpayer subsidies.

More responsible governments sponsor preschool on the grounds that some children need it to compensate for families who cannot or do not help with reading and adding. This assumes, however, that the schools such children attend cannot fill in these deficiencies in the other 12 to 13 years they spend on education. In that case, why send poor kids to school at all?

This is the same point eminent literacy expert E.D. Hirsch made back in the 80s when debunking the myth that poverty determines children’s intellectual ability. Rags-to-riches powerhouses such as Thomas Sowell, Oprah Winfrey, and Frederick Douglass proved this a myth long before the research did. Thanks to Hirsch and prominent experimental charter schools like KIPP, though, we now know good schools can close achievement gaps in as little as three to four years.

This is very hard work, however, and it requires a very strong school support structure and real teaching talent, so it’s important to deal with the root cause of a rising need for remedial education at age three: those troubling distracted families.

Back in 1965, less than one in ten children were born to unwed mothers. Now, half of all U.S. children are born to a life with no committed father, and the divorce rate has doubled. The evidence is indisputable that children living in cohabiting, never-married, or divorced homes are far more likely to be poor and far more likely to have trouble learning. The reason is obvious: There’s one-half as many grown-ups at home to read to these kids and talk to them.

Family breakdown and school incompetence are traditional conservative drums. Both have coincided to rain all over the futures of needy children. Putting an expensive, ineffective patch on these kids’ gaping intellectual wounds just so lawmakers can claim they solved the problem is cowardly and shameful. Real problem-solvers will require, at least in trade for targeted preschool, measures that address the heartbreaking reasons demand for it is rising.

[First Published at Human Events]