Federal Preschool Programs

The alphabet is expensive. The Obama administration’s FY 2011 budget includes $9.3 billion in new spending on an Early Learning Challenge Fund, a new federal preschool program contained within the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). The SAFRA, a higher education bill, has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Heritage education policy expert Lindsey Burke outlines current federal spending on preschool programs and illustrates that further federal involvement in early childhood education is unnecessary. Burke points out:

The ultimate goal of the myriad early education bills is to guarantee access to publicly subsidized preschool for all families.…But statistics show that most American children already have access to preschool: More than 80 percent of four-year-old children are enrolled in a preschool program; enrollment of three-year-olds and four-year-olds has increased fivefold since 1964. Moreover, the federal government already provides preschool subsidies to low-income children…turning another benefit for universal preschool into a new subsidy for middle-class and upper-income children.

The administration’s plans to increase federal involvement and spending in early education come on the heels of a recently-released study by the Department of Health and Human Services on Head Start, the federal government’s largest preschool program. HHS found that Head Start offers no long term benefits for participating students, yet the federal government continues to pour funds into these ineffective and inefficient programs. In addition to wasting taxpayer money on programs that fail to increase student achievement, the federal government insists on fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. As Burke illustrates:

American children are currently well served by the existing network of early education and care providers. More than three-quarters of children are already enrolled in some form of preschool program. Private providers, who make up a substantial portion of the preschool market, are in danger of being crowded out by a large “free” government program and burdensome regulation and certification requirements.

Rather than uphold the status quo of funding ineffectual federal preschool programs, Congress should reform existing preschool programs such as Head Start. As Burke reasons:

Policymakers should resist calls for universal preschool because it would lead to the creation of a large-scale taxpayer-funded program of questionable value, which would ultimately limit choice for families….Expanding access to preschool would likely create unnecessary subsidies for middle-class and upper-class families, while generating a disincentive for parental care-giving.”

Teaching the alphabet to every four year old in America shouldn’t leave those same children with a greater national debt burden. After all, our entitlement crisis already promises to do that.

Sarah Torre is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm