Government Preschool: Like Treating Cancer With A Band-Aid

Government Preschool: Like Treating Cancer With A Band-Aid
November 12, 2013

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann (jpullmann@heartland.org) is a research fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)

With the ongoing Obamacare disaster, Democrats are looking to pivot to yet another issue they hope will be better received — a federal preschool initiative. They might think this is smart politics, but no amount of politicians waving smiling pictures of underprivileged tots can hide the waste of money and human wreckage created by poorly designed federal preschool programs.

As usual, they've sent out a New York Times writer to lay some preliminary groundwork. In this weekend’s edition, Nicholas Kristof  extols the supposed glories of Oklahoma’s preschool entitlement, which essentially consists of a handful of smiling children, another handful of smiling adults whose livelihoods depend on this program, and that Republicans in this red state have, shockingly, expanded evidence-poor entitlements (he must not hang around Republicans often, or read much political history).

He fails to mention a number of pertinent facts, including the lack of evidence most children need preschool, the lack of evidence the federal government is well-suited to administer such a program, the lack of money this nation has for the foreseeable future, and the lack of logic he and most preschool advocates use when pushing their cracked ideas.

The Vocabulary Gap

One central justification for government interventions with very young children is one Kristof cites: “One well-known study found that a child of professionals hears 30 million more words by the age of four than a child on welfare. So the idea is that even the poorest child in Oklahoma should have access to the kind of nurturing that is routine in middle-class homes. That way, impoverished children don’t begin elementary school far behind the starting line—and then give up.”

If Kristof had read the article he linked to concerning that study, however, he would have discovered that he portrays it inaccurately. In fact, the several studies on this topic find that poorer children are behind in their vocabulary as early as age three, not age four, and that this gap becomes apparent as early as 18 months. Vocabulary is crucial to education and life. It is the foundation of all further learning, as E.D. Hirsch has pointed out, because knowing words indicates you know the things they describe, meaning vocabulary indicates knowledge acquisition. People with better vocabularies have better marriages, higher incomes, and better grades. And vocabulary is like Velcro: The more you have, the more you can acquire more easily.

So there’s no disputing that the vocabulary gap is a big problem for poor children, and none at all for middle-class children. The logic problem for preschool proponents is that they seek to remedy this far too late—at age four, typically and in Oklahoma’s program, a full year after the 30-million word gap has been established, and more than two years after the gap has begun. Curious how Kristof’s deceptive location of the word gap at age four coincides with when government preschool usually begins, andwhen President Obama plans for his new entitlement expansion to begin. Actually treating this problem when it starts, which is when treatment would be most effective, requires government programs that begin around age one. Otherwise, typical preschool programs essentially repeat the problem proponents also keep proclaiming to us, which is that children enter school “not ready to learn.” Under the Democrats’ proposal, children will still enter preschool not ready to learn.

Democrats’ real problem is that it’s easy to promote preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, because that’s when the middle-class homes who vote typically want preschool. The public is less likely to endorse essentially government orphanages for children from poor homes starting at age one. In short, what poor kids probably need to overcome this gap is not something most voters would buy in this high-regulation, low-wage economy.

Voters are also more likely to buy preschool if it looks less like welfare and more like an entitlement. So while there’s no real justification for giving middle-class kids preschool on the taxpayer’s dime, there is a political justification: He who gives away the most things to the most people wins. No wonder, again, that President Obama’s proposal would not target the children who most need preschool, which are not even all children whose family incomes happen to be below X amount (what an insulting assertion, by the way), but would open its doors to the middle class, or families whose incomes are 200 percent above the federal poverty level. That’s 40 percent of families in the country, whose incomes range up to $47,100 for a family of four (our family of five can live quite well within that amount out here in flyover country, by the
way).

Rotten Track Record

Treating children too late may be one reason government preschool is typically ineffective. In fact, the federal government has a horrific record on preschool. Its own gold-standard evaluations of the federal Head Start program show it offers no benefits to children and society beyond first grade, and even fosters some negative effects such as lower math skills and more emotional problems. This despite spending approximately $8 billion per year totaling more than $160 billion since it began in 1965 with President Johnson’s destructive Great Society. The situation is similar in Oklahoma, which seems to have better early gains than Head Start but the jury is out on whether any long-term gains will materialize. Typically, they haven’t. And the criteria should not be “any gains at all” but “gains significant enough to warrant massive tax spending and diversions of children from home.”

Oklahoma’s program does not live up to its inflated PR in other ways. For one, it uses a rating system for preschools (and was the first state to do so, in fact) that recent research has shown is utterly useless—in other words, the rating system’s labels have nothing to do with reality. Its metrics could rate a good preschool poorly and rate a bad preschool well. It’s okay, though, because 26 states use the same rating system, thanks largely to Oklahoma’s lead. Just goes to show you, as Kristof says, that states should continue to follow Oklahoma’s lead on preschool!

This track record is utterly atrocious. Who in his right mind would pay $180 billion so thousands of children could read slightly better for two years and have more emotional problems and worse math skills? Yet Obama and Co. continue to insist federal preschool will benefit children despite all the evidence it has been a massive waste of tax dollars our nation has never been able to afford. Kristof claims “mountains of research suggests [sic] that early childhood initiatives are the best way to chip away at inequality and reduce the toll of crime, drugs and educational failure.” But as social scientist Charles Murray points out, these “mountains of research” that appear to support government preschool are built upon three boutique programs from the 1960s and 70s that have never been replicated at scale (and worked with children younger than 4, which the president doesn’t propose to do). The evidence simply isn’t there, and until it is, not just Republicans but every single American should look askance at demands we indebt our children further to create programs that prostitute their images.

The Root Problem

The most curious thing about the preschool debate is that everyone acts as if dazed children just pop out of the prairie at age four. We’re told to attribute the supposed increase in children needing preschool to poverty, but no one discusses why poverty necessarily means fewer children who know their colors. Even with the recent recession, Americans are the richest group of people the world has ever known. Our poor live lives 18th-century kings could not have dreamed of, and of which the world’s poor today still cannot fathom. In poorer days, when we were still richer than everyone else, global stars and scholars like Thomas Sowell, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas rose from poverty and single-mother homes. So the mere fact of having less money than other people, or even life hardship, does not guarantee that a child needs government therapy.

Let me suggest another reason for the correlation between poverty and language loss in this country: fractured families. In the United States, as Brookings Institution research has shown, poverty is essentially the result of bad life decisions, not lack of opportunity. The study found that Americans have a 2 percent chance of living in poverty if they do just three simple things: finish high school (not college), work full time, and marry before bearing children.

Now, contrary to the evidence on preschool, the evidence on how self-destroyed families hurt children is so strong that scholars on the left and right cannot read the social science as saying anything other than that divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing deeply damages children. It does so in many ways—increasing suicide attempts, aggression, and so forth—but those pertinent here are that fatherlessness makes children poor in money and mind. In that sense, government preschool is like treating cancer with a Band-Aid.

Observe that, between 1970 and 2010, nonmarital birth rates have almost tripled and marriage rates have declined between 75 and 30 percent (depending on age cohort). Here we have an obvious root to the sudden and shocking problem that so many children cannot give their first and last names or follow two-step directions by kindergarten (two of the easy-peasy “kindergarten readiness” skills apparently thousands of children are failing). From personal observations, as well as the social science, we know that these children are not looking at books because they’re looking at televisions and computers all day while their mothers text furiously; these children are not singing nursery rhymes because their mothers and their live-in boyfriends are busy canoodling, doing drugs, or fighting; and these children are not having conversations with their parents because their parents are almost incapable of using English.

Yet in the preschool debate no one discusses how to reduce the need for preschool by recreating the societal demand that fathers marry the mothers of their children, and that women refuse sex until they’ve guaranteed the children created by that decision have a real chance at a happy life. Kristof himself comes so close, by giving this example: “Take two girls, ages 3 and 4, I met here in one Tulsa school. Their great-grandmother had her first child at 13. The grandmother had her first at 15. The mom had her first by 13, born with drugs in his system, and she now has four children by three fathers.” A mother who has four children with three fathers and uses drugs while pregnant deserves to have her children removed. Again, from personal experience, why would such a young lady not wish her children removed (by abortion or social workers) so she can move to the next boyfriend more conveniently? Because she gets government benefits from having them. Government has taken the place of a husband, family, and community. Government won’t tell her to clean up her act for the sake of her kids. It won’t volunteer to care for her children so she can get a job. Families will. But she doesn’t need a family. She has government. And the more government she has, the less family, although that’s just what destitute children need most.

Our Dark Future

Any discussion of preschool must be held in its context, which means demanding an end for government programs enabling those who bear children out of wedlock and discriminating against those who marry. Conservatives should respond with a holistic approach that reduces the need for government intervention in the future, rather than accepting and thus encouraging parent and community abdication. This means talking about why so many children get to age five having never heard the ABCs.

If there is to be government preschool, it should be targeted to children whose parents will not take advantage of the free libraries dotting this nation that provide books, play activities, and good advice for ending the literacy gap with just 20 minutes of reading a day. It should also not be run through the federal government using a Medicaid-like dollar-matching scheme, since that gives impetus for states to spend more, blindly, and the federal government has proven itself an incompetent administrator of preschool programs. It should be targeted to very young children who need extra help, not introduced as yet another politically advantageous entitlement that accelerates bankruptcy for the brokest nation in history.

Therein lies the last problem with new government spending on poorly-grounded social programs: Our children and grandchildren will spend their lives paying off the debt we and our parents have already incurred. They are essentially tax slaves at this point. It is right to condemn those whose episodes of drama-ridden lust create children whose life prospects are dark. But to only do so without condemning ourselves would be self-righteous misdirection. We, too, are baby abandoners and deadbeat fathers. We have all stolen our children’s futures to enjoy our prodigal lives now. This is no time to continue using our children as slogans and placards for political gain while fiscally and socially obliterating their futures.

[Originally published in The Federalist]

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann (jpullmann@heartland.org) is a research fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)