|NUMBER 282||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||JULY 2009|
|Slow the Preschool Bandwagon|
President Obama has pledged to spend $10 billion more a year on "zero to five" education, and his 2010 budget makes a $2 billion "down payment" on that commitment. (Billions more are already in the "stimulus" package.) Any number of congressional leaders want more preschool, as do dozens of governors. Not to mention the National Education Association and the megabucks Pew Charitable Trusts, which is underwriting national and state-level advocacy campaigns on behalf of universal pre-kindergarten. At least three states are already on board.
Underlying all this activity and interest is the proposition that government — state and federal — should pay for at least a year of preschool for every American four-year-old. One rationale is to boost overall educational achievement. Another is to close school-readiness gaps between the haves and have-nots.
Almost nobody is against it. Yet everybody should pause before embracing it.
For all its surface appeal, universal preschool is an unwise use of tax dollars. In a time of ballooning deficits, expansion of preschool programs would use large sums on behalf of families that don't need this subsidy while not providing nearly enough help to the smaller number of children who need it most. It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps five-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring from preschool. (Part of the energy behind universal pre-K is school systems — and teachers unions — maneuvering to expand their own mandates, revenue and membership rolls.)
Versions of universal preschool are underway in Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia, with participation rates for four-year-olds between 60 and 70%. If advocates have their way, dozens of states will expand their more limited pre-K offerings — typically aimed at poor or disabled youngsters - to include all four-year-olds and, soon after, three-year-olds, in government-funded programs that most often are run by public school systems. Washington will kick in billions to help.
Yet this campaign rests on four myths:
Instead of launching vast new pre-K programs for all, policymakers would better serve American children by focusing on three genuine problems:
Done right, preschool programs can help America address its urgent education challenges. But today's push for universalism gets it almost entirely wrong.
Chester E. Finn, Jr., a former assistant secretary of education, is most recently the author of Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut. He is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.