September 29 2013
Keep Uncle Sam Out of Preschool
Vicki E. Alger
Three out of five mothers with preschool age children are employed, the vast majority full-time. So what do these moms need most? More government, says Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi.
In her recently released “Economic Agenda for Women and Families,” Pelosi insists America has an early child care and education “crisis” that threatens our economy. Her solution is to adopt President Obama’s universal government-run preschool and childcare plan for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
Yet there’s scant evidence that expanding government would improve the quality of care, student learning, or affordability — much less the economy.
Almost half of all young children with employed mothers are cared for by relatives — a consistent pattern for decades. But is this situation a “crisis,” as Pelosi suggests, or a choice?
Parents from all walks of life choose child care based on their desire for nurturing providers, safe environments, convenient locations, and educational activities.
The Democrats’ plan also ignores the preschool preferences of employed mothers. Fully 68 percent of preschoolers with employed mothers are in programs already, and most (64 percent) are enrolled full time. There’s no evidence to suggest that the rest of employed mothers even want their children in school at such a young age.
Expanding government’s role is more likely to impose expensive administrative burdens, crowd out innovative, personalized nongovernment childcare providers, and replace a variety of preschool options with a one-size-fits-all system.
To get an idea of the quality of care preschoolers would likely receive at the hands of government look at Head Start. Launched in 1965 as a six-week summer catch-up program for disadvantaged students about to enter kindergarten, today nearly 1 million children are enrolled at an annual cost of nearly $8 billion.
According to the two latest official evaluations, any academic impacts faded out as early as the end of first grade, and others dissipated by the end of third grade.
There are better ways to help parents afford child care and early education. For starters, parents should be allowed to deduct 100 percent of their childcare costs, rather than depending on federal subsidies. Instead of funneling more money into Head Start, those funds should be deposited on a per-student basis into Early Education Savings Accounts. With those funds parents could choose their preferred preschool option, and any leftover funds could be reserved for later educational expenses.
States should also consider enacting Early Education Tax Credit scholarship programs, which would allow individual and corporate taxpayers to claim a dollar-for-dollar credit against their taxes for donations to nonprofit organizations that award scholarships for children to attend the preschool program of their parents’ choice.
Pelosi and other advocates of more government child care should also recall that millions of parents make sacrifices to keep a spouse at home because they believe that’s best for their children. Government programs that push institutional care devalue these parents’ choices.
At a time when one in eight Americans is un- or underemployed and the national debt is mounting, spending trillions of dollars more to further expand government into early child care and education makes no sense. Women want the benefits of a diverse economy, and employed mothers want their children to have diverse early care and learning opportunities—not more wasteful, ineffective government programs.
Vicki E. Alger is senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.