Preschool Good for Some–But Should Taxpayers Fund it for All?

John McClaughry, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, echoes some of our concerns about the push towards universal preschool.

On using previous studies to justify universal preschool, he says:

“The Perry Preschool, Chicago Parent Child Center, and Abecedarian experiments, three projects frequently touted as showing the benefits of preschool] “dealt with seriously at-risk children. … Pouring the resources to the most desperate children can hardly help but produce some benefits, and most people would probably agree that it’s an inescapable public cost. But to proclaim 4-to-1 or 7-to-1 rates of return for investment in a program for all children is just not honest.”

On the motivation for universal programs, he says:

“The impetus for this movement comes from several different sources. A lot of sincere people think that lavishing lots of dollars on preschoolers is the next big thing in social progress. The Department of Education is obviously eager to expand the public school system. The NEA teachers’ union will naturally be enthusiastic, anticipating that expanded public preschool programs will bring them hundreds of dues-paying members.

A major driving force is business. Universal preschool, especially when it expands from a 10-hour a week to a 30-or 40 hour a week program, will be a boon to business. If kids are in school at 3 and 4, their employees won’t have to pay for day care, and the employer won’t have to provide for or bargain about day care.”

And in another column, he adds this:

First, “free” preschools are popular with working parents who would otherwise have to pay for day care. Second, two more public-school grades would mean more jobs and more teachers and miscellaneous aides. Third, for a lot of advocates, getting toddlers away from their unqualified parents and into public programs run by people with credentials is a step towards improving society.”

On the threat of universal programs to existing preschool businesses, he say:

“Universal ‘free’ government pre-K programs will either swallow up or wipe out small day-care businesses. For those–especially liberals–concerned about closing the achievement gap between at-risk kids and all other kids, universal preschool won’t do it. It will just eat up the funding that might do it.”

If a legislature wishes to expand a preschool program, he offers several alternatives, including:

“Give parents $2,500 vouchers that they could cash in at the public, private, or religious preschool of their choice. This would cost considerably less than taxpayer financing of unionized, credentialed public preschools. It would … keep alive the private day-care businesses that are in mortal peril if ‘free’ universal preschool is enacted.

A third approach would be to give a tax credit, as Arizona does, for contributions to nonprofit scholarship funding organizations … that offer scholarships to needy children to attend the preschool of their parents’ choice.”

Finally, McClaughy asks some hard questions, including these:

“If there are no identifiable educational benefits by the time children have reached third grade, why should the taxpayer be asked to pay for ‘preschools’? Isn’t this just a subsidized day care program for rich and poor alike?”

“How much in tax dollars does it take to give preschool children an identifiable educational benefit four years later, compared to children who have attended only K-3? Is that benefit worth the taxpayer investment?”

“If preschools for at-risk children help them close the achievement gap with their more favored peers, why won’t universal preschool maintain that gap indefinitely?”

“If private day care centers are drawn into a ‘collaborate’ controlled by the public school system, will the public school system not force higher teacher credentialing regulations on the operators  and staff of the day care centers? Will this result in any identifiable improvement for the children, or will it only replace day care operators with more costly (and unionized) public school teachers?”

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