The Senator who wrote It Takes a Village apparently
believes it takes the federal government to decide how American
families prepare their 4-year-olds for kindergarten.
Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) recently unveiled a proposal for
a new $10 billion federal program to offer government-subsidized
preschool for all children across the country. Under her plan,
states that offer such programs would be eligible to receive
federal funding if they agree to follow federal guidelines on
matters such as teacher training requirements and curriculum
For years, advocacy groups have been working to expand early
education programs and secure universal preschool across the
country. So far, only Georgia and Oklahoma offer universal
government-subsidized preschool, while 40 states and the District
of Columbia offer preschool for targeted groups of students.
Senator Clinton's plan is to use the lure of billions in federal
tax dollars to expand the number of states offering universal
Parents and taxpayers should read the fine print before
embracing the latest federal initiative geared to help children.
The Clinton plan is based on two flawed assumptions-first, that
preschool is an essential component of all children's early
education; second, that it's the federal government's
responsibility to promote and manage it.
On this first issue, parents and taxpayers should be skeptical
of promises from politicians that universal preschool will solve
the problems in American education. Supporters of universal
preschool tout studies that show how at-risk students have
benefited from early intervention programs and argue that all
children would benefit from early education.
But a careful look at the available research evidence casts
doubt on these claims. Evaluations of early education interventions
have shown that while participating students may yield gains in the
short-run, these benefits typically disappear over time. Other
academic studies, such as a 2005 study published by Stanford and
University of California researchers, have reported that students
who attend preschool may be more likely to exhibit negative social
Even if the research evidence supported the advocates' claims,
it wouldn't justify a universal program that includes subsidies for
children from middle- and upper-income families. Today, families
provide for their children's needs in a number of ways, including
private preschool and child care and in-home family care. In
addition, forty states have state-funded preschool programs, the
majority of which are targeted at children with financial need.
A universal government program would disrupt the existing
preschool and child care market and place a high burden on
taxpayers. All families would have to decide whether enrolling
their children in private preschools justifies the cost of forgoing
"free" child care. The likely result would be a massive exodus from
private preschool, child care, and home care, with taxpayers
picking up the tab.
Fortunately, it seems many voters are rejecting calls for
universal preschool. California voters rejected one such ballot
initiative in 2006. The state was already spending $3 billion
annually to provide subsidized preschool for disadvantaged
children. Proposition 82 would have extended those benefits to all
middle- and upper-income families at an additional cost of $2
billion per year. More than 60 percent voted against the universal
Sen. Clinton seems to think that she knows better than
California voters and policymakers in other states. By offering
between $5 billion and $10 billion in federal grants, Sen.
Clinton's plan would force state lawmakers to choose whether to
implement expansive government preschool programs (and receive
federal funding) or reject the offer and watch their constituents'
tax dollars flow to neighboring states. If history is any guide,
it's likely that many states will take the bait.
Once they do, participating states would be forced to comply
with burdensome federal rules governing preschool just as K-12
public schools must comply with the federal No Child Left Behind
law. Congress-rather than Mom and Dad or the nearest state
legislature-would make decisions about what type of training a
preschool teacher must have and what type of curriculums should be
Campaign promises for new federal programs to help children
probably sound appealing to some voters. But parents and taxpayers
should question whether they really want Congress and the federal
bureaucracy deciding how every 4-year-old in the country is
preparing for school.
Dan Lips is Education Analystat the Heritage Foundation,