For most 4-year-olds, early childhood education means any one of a number of nurturing preschool experiences: a small neighborhood program, a church-based day care, a private preschool or early education at home. Parents have many options.
At the same time, more parents work from home and take care of their children. Many mothers want the most time possible at home in their children's early, formative years. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 80 percent of mothers working part-time indicated some type of work-home balance was the ideal scenario; only 5 percent preferred full-time work.
Bear all this in mind as the Obama administration pushes for universal, taxpayer-funded preschool for all.
While roughly 42 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in government preschool programs (state-run or the federal Head Start), 58 percent receive their earliest learning and care from private preschool providers, church-based programs and — most important — parents, grandparents and other family members.
Three-quarters of Virginia 4-year-olds are in the care of private providers, home-based centers or family care, not government programs.
The administration envisions the exact opposite: universal, taxpayer-funded government preschool for America's children, which President Obama first outlined in his State of the Union address and recently touted again at a Georgia preschool.
The administration wants to increase federal spending to fund expansion of state preschool programs to serve more 4-year-olds and to “enroll more infants, toddlers and 3-year-olds” in Head Start and Early Head Start.
Such expansive, big-government preschool programs put the “nanny” in “nanny state.” And naturally, the administration has not revealed the price tag to taxpayers.
Growing government preschool and child care is bad policy. With so many 4-year-olds already enrolled in some preschool program, and with taxpayer-funded programs such as Head Start available to low-income families, the president's proposal will effectively subsidize middle- and upper-income parents already paying for preschool and child care on their own, with no new benefit to poor families.
If existing government programs are not meeting poor children's learning needs — and evaluations of Head Start show they aren't — policymakers should consider reforming existing programs, not intervening more.
Head Start, created in 1965, has utterly failed the low-income children it was designed to serve. A scientifically rigorous evaluation of more than 5,000 children found Head Start had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health or parenting practices of participants. On a few measures, access to Head Start had negative effects on children.
Yet taxpayers spend $8 billion per year on Head Start. If the federal government continues to fund the program, states should — instead of relegating low-income children to underperforming Head Start centers — at least be allowed to make their Head Start dollars portable, following children to a private preschool provider of choice.
Research data demonstrate that large-scale preschool programs fail to live up to their promises. Georgia and Oklahoma have not seen children benefit as a result. Oklahoma's fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores actually declined with universal preschool.
Children should have the best early education opportunities possible. But the administration's proposal shifts the focus away from the low-income children most in need to a broad day-care subsidy for middle- and upper-income families.
To achieve excellence in early education, we must abandon the presumption that preschool for all is preferable to family care. Instead, we should work to ensure that existing preschool programs meet the needs of the most disadvantaged children, rather than looking to Washington to raise our children.
-Lindsey M. Burke is a fellow in education policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.