Universal Pre-K is a Bad Idea, Part 2
Culture11.com tackled this issue recently, and brought in the voice of James Heckman, an economist who is often quoted in the discussion.
a 2006 essay that Heckman wrote for the Wall Street Journal closes with the observation that there is “little basis for providing universal programs at zero cost,” and “no reason for [early childhood] interventions to be conducted in public centers.”
“Vouchers,” Heckman continues, “that can be used in privately run programs would promote competition and efficiency in the provision of early enrichment programs. They would allow parents to choose the venues and values offered in the programs that enrich their child’s earliest years.” Appropriately targeted, means-tested, and choice-driven ventures are one thing; but to spend public dollars in such a way as to “try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing,” as he put it in a 2005 interview, is “foolish.”
Heckman’s point here is obvious to many of us, if we think about it. There are only two real arguments for pre-K: socialization and school readiness. And both are only valid in certain, usually extreme cases.
Socialization shouldn’t even be an issue in most places. My son is 20 months old, and he is plenty socialized. He interacts with kids his age, older kids, babies and adults. He’s shy sometimes, but usually likes being around other people. He won’t need day care or preschool or kindergarten to get used to being around other kids. He gets plenty of that with the neighbors and their kids, and various playgroups my wife takes him to. He won’t need preschool for that. If a parent is reasonably socialized, their kids will be as well. If you’re an unchangeable introvert, then get them involved in children’s ministry or the library story time or something.
School readiness is not much of an issue either, and my wife has convinced me it’s a smaller one than I originally thought. What does a child need to know to start kindergarten? I’m not sure. But I’m assured that those things do not include reading, writing, any type of math, or even knowing how to hold a book. If you can start kindergarten without knowing those simple things and be ready for first grade, why do you need pre-k?
I have read stories about children who didn’t know their own names or have basic vocabulary at the beginning of kindergarten, but those stories are rare, and there are more than enough pre-k programs already to handle those types of problems.
But my son knows his name, and how to hold a book, and at this point he can turn on the XBox (with the controller), open the disc tray, take a game disc (always NBA 2K8) out of it’s case, put it in the tray, and close it. My wife told me this morning that he started emptying the dishwasher – which was locked – by himself. He even put things in the right places. And he knows how to hold a book.
Part of that is me bragging…but it’s also making a point: we haven’t been teaching him these things, it just happens in the course of life. You don’t need “school” for this stuff.
So let’s call this what it is. It’s free day care for 3- and 4-year-olds. Some people need that. But it doesn’t need to be universal, and it doesn’t need to be government run. Vouchers given to low income families will allow the gaps between their kids and those in better surroundings to be softened, but will mainly let poor parents spend less on day care. Hopefully that will help them shorten the length of their poverty. If nothing else, it will make things a little easier.
This shouldn’t be for everyone. In 2005 2 million kids (25% of all 3- and 4-year-olds)[The State of Preschool, NIEER] were enrolled in state or federal programs. Somewhere around 29% were enrolled in other programs. With a universal bill, as much as 80% of the total population of 3- and 4-year-olds could be in public programs. Oklahoma already has more than 90% of 4-year-olds enrolled in state or federal programs (and 54% of 3- and 4-year-olds). Several other states are over 40% of 3- and 4-year-olds. Within a few years, those numbers could be comparable to the 99% k-8 enrollment.
Based on spending for Head Start spending (about $7,200 per student[2. Ibid]) that could mean an additional $32B in federal funds up front (up to about $46B). And if the goal of universal enrollment is reached at current cost and population, a federal cost of almost $60B. And that number is sure to go up when the salary gap between pre-K and K12 teachers closes.
It’s just too costly, not to mention largely fruitless and unnecessary, to make this a universal goal. It’s true that investment in helping young children acquire necessary skills will show dividends later, but the vast majority of them will get those skills from their parents, or from the private programs they’re already enrolled in. Make this available as day care for needy families, and let kindergarten be the time for school readiness training. Let these kids play for a while. Because it’s over once they turn six.