September 18 2013
Greater economic equality requires the lifeline of more government-funded preschool for disadvantaged children, says Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman in his New York Times editorial last week. High quality education certainly contributes to a foundation for opportunity and prosperity. But the empirical record shows that government preschool is a dead end, not a lifeline.
Heckman’s editorial comes amidst calls from Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to expand universal government early education and child care to all American three- and four-year-olds.
Yet the federal government’s longest-running preschool program, Head Start, has not shown any lasting impacts past third grade according to official evaluations. Other programs touted by Heckman as preschool exemplars have also show no scientifically credible lasting impacts.
State-run programs don’t do much better, either.
State-funded preschool and universal kindergarten programs spanning several decades show no long-term impact on grade retention, future reliance on public assistance, employment, or earnings. Those programs also don’t curb dropout or incarceration rates among disadvantaged students. Georgia and Oklahoma have the longest-running state preschool programs, started in 1993 and 1998 respectively. Yet academic outcomes remain flat at best, and Oklahoma actually experienced declines in reading scores.
Heckman insists that we’re not expanding government child care and preschool because of “unfounded doubt and fear of doing things differently.”
The reality is, concerns over government preschool’s high costs and scant results are very well founded.
Decades of empirical evidence shows that government is no expert when it comes to high quality early education. Worse, as government expands it crowds private providers, stifling the healthy competition necessary for improving quality and lowering costs.
Finally, and worst of all, as government takes over, programs that had once been voluntary have a funny way of becoming compulsory. Parents who prefer to educate their toddlers at home would have to start jumping through all kinds of regulatory hoops, or they might not be given a choice at all, depending on which state they live in.
Rather than increasing dependency on government subsidies and opening the door to more compulsory schooling, all families should be able to deduct their preschool expenses from their federal taxes. Individuals and businesses should also be able to make tax-deductible contributions to non-profit scholarship organizations to help low-income parents afford the preschools they—not government officials—think are best.