March 12, 2004 | Commentary on Education
As The Oklahoman reported in "State program receives national recognition" (news story, Feb. 20), Oklahoma has one of the most ambitious early childhood programs in the country. The state is one of only three to offer universal preschool for all 4-year- olds, in addition to numerous other early care programs.
In a report by the Congressional Research Service, Oklahoma was found to be among the states with the largest per- capita spending on early childhood care. Half of the state's 4- year-olds are served through these programs; nearly half of them are in all-day care. There are an additional 30 state and federal programs serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
Curiously, this substantial federal and state investment has not produced the strong academic, economic and behavioral benefits that proponents say they should. Oklahoma's fourth-grade reading proficiency rates were actually lower in 2003 than in 1992.
Other indices of children's well-being are even more worrisome: a third of the state's children are born to unwed mothers; more than one-fifth of all children live in poverty; and Oklahoma has the third-highest incarceration rate in the country.
Nevertheless, proponents of day care and preschool urge a dramatic investment in a strategy that has not proven successful.
Rather than investing in government solutions, it's time to invest in families. Even Oklahoma's famously liberal early education task force acknowledged in 2000 that "the root core template for all relationships comes from original attachments with primary caregivers. Relationships and social-emotional development are the glue that provide the foundation for a healthy family, community and society."
Lawmakers can strengthen families by cutting taxes so that parents can use their own money to access the care that they believe is best for their children, including care at home. They can level the playing field in the federal and Oklahoma tax codes so that dependent- care tax credits are available to all families with young children, not just those who put their kids in day care. They can give parents real school choice. And they can promote marriage, parental involvement and worship -- factors that research has shown have the greatest potential to benefit children.
The question should not be what the government can do to replace the parent but what it can do to enable parents to spend more time with their children -- simply put, policies that strengthen the family benefit children.
is Senior Education Policy Analyst at the Heritage
First Appeared in The Oklahoman