Roanoke (VA) Times
Universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds entered the political debate in Virginia when Gov. Timothy Kaine began a (so-far-unsuccessful) push for it. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who was endorsed by Kaine early on, supports government-funded early childhood programs beginning even earlier, at “Age Zero.” Meanwhile, numerous plans for new federal pre-K programs are beginning to receive increased attention.
This issue of such importance to every family deserves a fuller debate than has occurred so far. Would the benefits justify the hefty price tag? Are there downsides that could even prove harmful to some children?
Plans on the table include several bills pending before Congress, one of which is sponsored by Sen. Hillary Clinton, who just conceded the nomination to Obama but could still wind up on his ticket. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain has not yet proposed an early-childhood program, but his domestic policy adviser, David Crane, told Politico, “Sen. McCain does not support universal pre-K as defined by the government paying for pre-K for every child in America.”
To the proponents, taxpayer funding of early childhood education for all income levels would be a slam-dunk of an “investment” that would repay society many times over.
Higher achievement. A lower dropout rate. Fewer children in special education. Reduced teen pregnancy. A drop in crime rates. An increase in lifetime earnings, and even in the nation’s GNP.
Those are just some of the benefits claimed as sure-fire outcomes of universal pre-K. However, policymakers need to consider the implications carefully before creating any big new federal programs (costing upwards of $10 billion a year), because major studies completed over the past few years show that there are significant downsides to government pre-K for all.
Both Obama and Clinton prominently cite the work of Nobel Laureate economist James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago in support of their ideas. Obama’s ambitious “Zero to Five” plan, which is modeled on an Illinois program, says that Heckman’s body of work proves that spending on early childhood “raises productivity of society as a whole.”
While Heckman indeed has done seminal work on the value of subsidizing compensatory education for children of the poor, his answer to a question posed to him by an interviewer from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in June 2005 showed a much more nuanced position than the candidates imagine. This was the question: “Should public funding go for universal early childhood programs, or should funding be targeted for at-risk children?”
Heckman’s answer: “It is foolish to try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing. . . I think that the evidence suggests that we can target pretty well, and we can certainly deal with the major problems, by starting first with children from disadvantaged families. . . .”
Among the research findings that should be part of a national debate:
• Pre-K “boosts children’s reading and math scores at school entry, but also increases classroom misbehavior.” And by the end of the first grade, those academic gains have “largely dissipated” (although the positive gains tend to be larger for children from financially disadvantaged households).
• An extensive 2006 study of six states with well-established pre-K found no link between teachers’ degrees/credentials and “classroom quality or other academic gains for children.”
That last finding calls into question several prominent plans that would require all pre-K teachers (and even teachers’ aides) in funded programs to have bachelor’s or advanced degrees in early childhood education or development.
Ignored by many advocates is the reality that the private sector, according to an analysis by Marketdata Enterprises, currently provides more than 80 percent of early childhood education and day care services. Many families find the flexibility and choices they need, whether it be from full-day or part-day; religious or secular, home-based or center-based, non-profit or for-profit providers.
Rather than executing a takeover, or imposing rules that could force many private operators out of business, government programs could be utilized to expand choice opportunities, particularly for low-income families, for whom the results have proven to be most impressive. Indeed, James Heckman, the favorite economist of universal pre-K boosters, gave voice to this same notion at a Committee on Economic Development forum in 2006.
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