Saturday, August 30, 2008

Great Idea, Bad Way to Go About It

Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institute, in an op-ed from today's paper, recommends earlier government involvement in childhood education:
The back-to-school ritual leaves our youngest children behind. Federal investment in children does not start until age 5 or 6 when – ready or not – they enter kindergarten. Attitudes toward the pivotal early childhood years are shifting, and both presidential candidates should consider effective preschool programs in their domestic policy platforms.

Good care early in life helps children grow up with the skills to become tomorrow's adult workers, caregivers, taxpayers and citizens. Traditionally, we have regarded the care of young children as the almost exclusive domain of parents. Yet many young parents today are stretched thin, trying to care for their children while early in their own careers and family life.
I agree that the early years are crucial; does anyone disagree? But personally, I think that this should still be the almost exclusive domain of parents, especially at this young age. But I'll let her continue for a moment:
Whether a single mother working the night shift at a fast food restaurant or a busy executive dashing home before the child care center closes, parents across the country struggle to balance both their children's developmental needs and the demands of their employers. Too often, policymakers view the need for child care, keeping children safe so that parents can work, as separate from preparing children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

It is time to consolidate the existing patchwork of early childhood policies and programs and move them forward.

What is needed is a universal but targeted pre-school program, under which the federal government would fund a half-day of high-quality prekindergarten services for children from low-income families and a partial (one-third) federal subsidy for services to children in higher-income families. Extended-day services should be available for children of working parents.
Hmm--sounds expensive. And yes, it would be:
The estimated federal cost of such a proposal, if fully funded for all 3- and 4-year-olds whose families choose to participate, would be $18 billion a year. This includes $13.3 billion for the "free" part of the preschool program, $8.6 billion for the federal share of the partly subsidized part and $2.4 billion for "wrap-around" child care for working parents. Subtracting out the $6.5 billion currently provided through Head Start yields the $18 billion figure in new costs.
But I see several problems with this: If it's a government program, there will be lots of wasted money, because the whole thing will grow into a big, bloated bureaucracy, and way too much of the funding will go for that part instead of the educational part; it always does. And am I so cynical enough to think that "universal" will end up being translated as "dumbed down," as so often happens? Indeed. And here's another part that's scary to me:
Some institutional, philosophical and political barriers remain to integrating the services. Initially, the federal government might have to continue separate funding streams for Head Start and the new pre-K initiative. But eventually the two programs should be fused and have a single funding stream at the federal level.
That bothers me, because if the funding is coming from a single federal source, sooner or later the people with the purse strings might want to start telling the local programs how the money has to be spent. I'm a big believer in local control as well as parental control, and this sounds like both of these things could suffer.

But I guess my main problem with this whole thing is that, before implementing something like this, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we really need another big government program. The ones that already exist don't often do a very good job of anything except spending a lot of money in order to look as if something is being accomplished (so that all involved can feel good about themselves in the process) and empowering yet another crop of bureaucrats that are hard to get rid of later on.

I'm sure this is oversimplifying on my part, but what if we took that $18 billion that Isaacs seeks to have spent every year and return it to the pocketbooks of hard-working families. That might well help them afford better-quality child care, or even, in some cases, allow a parent to stay at home with the kids, which is by far the best way for most kids to show up to kindergarten prepared to learn.

Government has already stepped too far into our lives. Other than defending our shores and borders, and offering some assistance and incentives to help the proverbial trains run on time, most people just want the government to leave them alone. The time spent with kids before the age of five is crucial to their development; on this, Isaacs and I agree. But rather than launching another bloated, money-wasting program that will choke on its own red tape, our goal should be to let people keep more of their money and raise their own kids, rather than have the nanny state do it for them. In my mind, it takes a family to raise a child.

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