The words “early childhood education” sound so good that it’s difficult for people to be objective when discussing the subject. Like “puppies” or “sunshine” it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would not like it. What kind of ogre must be you be to be against early childhood education? Besides on the surface it seems to make sense. The earlier you start to educate children, the better the results you’ll see later in life. That’s obvious, isn’t it?
So when President Obama proposes universal pre-school for all children in the SOTU address, it’s easy to imagine many folks nodding their heads and thinking “yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” The problem is that the facts don’t necessarily support the feel good sentiment of early childhood education.
Mr. Obama claimed that "study after study" showed every dollar of pre-Kindergarten "investment" saves seven dollars later on, through better student performance, graduation rates and the like. Keep this man away from a stock portfolio, let alone the social sciences. In December, Mr. Obama's own Health and Human Services Department released an evaluation of Head Start, the 47-year-old program for low-income toddlers, and concluded that any cognitive gains disappeared by the third grade. HHS had sat on the legally mandated study for more than a year.
Most other academic studies have also found early educational intervention "fade out" and that these programs rarely achieve what they promise. Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution wrote Wednesday that the available studies supporting universal pre-K were "thin empirical gruel." Researchers at the Heritage Foundation and the conservative sociologist Charles Murray have come to similar conclusions. This is about as close to an intellectual policy consensus as Washington gets.
Though Mr. Obama's universal pre-K agenda seemed to emerge from nowhere, it goes back to his 2008 campaign platform that included a "zero-to-five" education plan that "begins at birth." It's further proof that liberals measure government success not by results, but by good intentions and how much government spends.
Those who support early childhood education can cite studies that support their position just as opponents cite other studies that don’t. The point is that this is by no means a settled matter and those who try to claim it is are being disingenuous. So before we sign on to spend billions of additional dollars on education and once again expand the scope of the government, we better have a pretty good idea that what we’re going to do is actually going to work.
And even then, we should have a discussion about whether this really yet another area of life that we want to turn over to the government. It’s easy to use helping children as your justification for more government as the DFL is doing by calling for an expansion of the free school lunch program in Minnesota. The problem comes when determining where the limits to government intervening to help children are.
We’re at the point now where we’ve pretty much allowed the government to educate and feed kids starting in kindergarten. Next, we’re going to give the government responsibility for “pre-K” education. Well, shouldn’t the government feed those kids too? And why wait until the kids are three or four? Wouldn’t it be even better if the government could get involved earlier on? We know how critical the early years are in a child’s development. If we really want to help children, do we really want to leave that development solely in the hands of the parents?
Talk of government education plans that “begin at birth” should give anyone who values individual liberty pause. No matter how good the words “early childhood education” might sound.