The White House has announced a big-money rollout intended to boost some of the president’s long talked-about education agenda items, the most notable of which is federally-funded preschool for everyone. According to President Obama, more than $1 billion – a combination of both federal and private funds – will go toward expanding Head Start and opening up new early-education opportunities.
Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have long hailed the move towards universal preschool as a bipartisan issue with strong support on both sides of the aisle. That isn’t quite the case, but it’s true that few Republicans are willing to stand against such an issue for fear of being painted as anti-education. If there was ever a special-interest group under political protection, it’s preschoolers.
Still, the issue isn’t as cut-and-dry as the administration would have us believe. Duncan is out doing the rounds, portraying the “unmet needs” as a heartbreaking issue of concern to one and all. “There are so many 3- and 4-year-olds that still don’t have access [to a federal preschool education] and we know the consequences long-term when we fail to prepare them for kindergarten.”
What of the consequences of failing to prepare them for preschool? Should we put taxpayer money into universal pre-pre-school? Or is that going too far? And just how do we “know” these consequences, anyway? Surely Duncan is not still relying on those tiny studies that proved not a damn thing about the benefits of preschool. Oh wait, yes she is.
Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on studies endorsed by the Obama administration to find out how well government-funded preschool programs work. We have two states – Georgia and Oklahoma – that have offered such programs for years. In Georgia, the cost of these programs come to more than $4,000 per child. In Oklahoma, they come to more than $7,000 per child. That’s a lot of Play-Doh! Still, if these programs come with the enormous benefits touted by the White House, it’s worth it.
Except…they really don’t. Reading scores for 4th graders in Oklahoma have actually gone down since the implementation of the preschool program. The 4th grade reading achievements of Georgia students have been stagnant. Worse, a study conducted by Georgia State University found that when comparing Georgia first graders who did not attend preschool with those that did, their respective skills were “similar.” These programs have been in place since the 1990s, so it isn’t a matter of waiting for kids to catch up.
Do Nothing, Feel Good
A government-funded national preschool system obviously isn’t the worst thing this president has ever endorsed, but it is another example of public takeover in the education sector. And if the results aren’t there to back up the money, the initiative deserves to be questioned and scrutinized. In many ways, this movement is similar to Michelle Obama’s school lunch program, another set of regulations that makes for great PR while having virtually no effect on its intended aims.
When we want to get serious about “at-risk” kids and their failing educations, we’re going to realize that throwing money at state institutions isn’t going to get it. When children come from families that place zero value on schooling, with parents who have never bothered to teach them to read the alphabet, institutional solutions aren’t going to make a difference. Something else has to change. Something in the culture.
But that’s a can of worms few politicians are willing to open.