Obama's Universal Pre-School Push

The president seeks to add another statist layer to society.

The first and most obvious question about the "universal preschool" idea President Barack Obama proposed in his State of the Union address has to be: "How in the world did we ever survive without it?"

The answer, until the nation and its culture began losing its way during the 1960s and 1970s, is that we mostly did just fine. Rich or poor, most families contained a married couple that stayed together. Their children generally grew up to competent with the help of strong reinforcing support structures in our neighborhoods, churches and communities.

Now we largely don't have intact families. We're paying for this devolution dearly in more ways than I can hope to enumerate in a single column. But I will note the primary result: Too many of our children are not being raised in home environments conducive to healthy early (or later) development. I will also note why this has happened: For decades, government policies have discouraged marriage while encouraging family break-ups.

Now the same people who brought us 30 years of a welfare system which did those very things (until 1996, when welfare reform began to improve that situation, but only marginally, because the culture by then had changed so markedly for the worse), an urban education system which has been failing children for decades (with the rot spreading to the suburbs and exurbs faster than more people recognize), and urban neighborhoods which have become virtual battle zones, are offering yet another "solution" which won't solve anything, and could possibly do significant harm. But it will expand the government's power and influence, which is what all of this is really about.

In his speech before Congress, Obama treated the dispute over the real value of universal preschool the way the left has treated global warming -- y'know, the thing that really hasn't been happening for the past 16 years -- i.e., as supposedly settled science:

... today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So, tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.

... Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children -- like Georgia or Oklahoma -- studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.

This is another one of those major exercises in statism which somehow won't "increase our deficit by a single dime." It can be said Obama is right in a sense. It will surely increase our deficit and the national debt by hundreds of millions, and probably more like billions, of dimes.

It is clear that Obama's definition of "a high-quality preschool program" is one that lasts all day. "A few hundred bucks a week" means at least $10,000 per nine-month school year. A small percentage of parents nationwide pay that much (many pay far less), and those who do are usually leaving their child in the care of others all day.

Thus, Obama has admitted, perhaps inadvertently, that he wants the nation's children between roughly the ages of 3-1/2 and 5 years old housed all day long in what will surely be government-regulated and eventually effectively government-controlled situations.

Is there solid evidence that all-day preschool has lasting beneficial effects? Not really.

A USA Today editorial on Wednesday, citing government-sponsored research, noted that "intensive study of Head Start, the nation’s largest and oldest preschool program, finds that the beneficial effects, which are real, wear off by third grade," because "for decades now, the American family has been breaking down."

But it goes beyond that.

First, there are strong arguments relating to emotional attachment why many kids of preschool age shouldn't be away from their parents for that long. The fact that this is so should not be seen as some kind of negative childhood trait.

Even more important, the driver behind the more aggressive preschool efforts is the belief that teaching children writing and math at an earlier age gives them a leg up in tackling their studies from that point forward. That premise seemed to be where Obama placed his emphasis in last week's address. The trouble is, it erroneously assumes that preschoolers are ready for these tasks. From a strictly biological development standpoint, they're often not.

David Elkind, at the time a professor of early childhood development at Tufts University, laid out the argument against rushing academics in 2005:

Those calling for academic instruction of the young don’t seem to appreciate that math and reading are complex skills acquired in stages related to age.

Children will acquire these skills more easily and more soundly if their lessons accord with the developmental sequence that parallels their cognitive development.

The reality is that children have to be far along in developing general motor skills (e.g., working with blocks containing letters, numbers, and colors) before they can effectively work on fine motor skills (e.g., holding a pencil, writing letters, doing simple math calculations). Elkind pointed to research showing that attempts to force fine motor skill work onto kids before their general motor skills have been adequately honed will leave children frustrated, anxious, and perhaps demotivated.

Elkind noted why there is so much pressure for doing what has been shown not to work:

... the movement toward academic training of the young is not about education. It is about parents anxious to give their children an edge in what they regard as an increasingly competitive and global economy.

Obama's attempt to capitalize on this anxiety to impose yet another statist layer on society is among his more cynical and potentially diabolical moves. The better solution is the harder one: Rebuild a culture of personal and parental responsibility.

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