During his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden reminded everyone that “free” preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds remains part of his agenda.
The president left out the part that it would cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and provide no long-term benefit for children.
After 57 years of government-funded preschool through the failed Head Start program, policymakers still don’t know what early-childhood instruction methods set up children for success. However, researchers know what doesn’t work.
Research shows that universal preschool programs don’t help children succeed, especially those traditionally considered at-risk of underachieving. For instance, recent findings from a randomized, long-term study of Tennessee’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program show that, by sixth grade, participants had more behavioral issues, worse test scores, and lower attendance than control groups.
The Head Start Impact Study shows similar disappointing results: Long term, Head Start, a federally funded preschool program, failed to improve children’s test scores, behavior, or well-being. The pre-K program even had negative effects on students’ math and social skills.
The Biden administration’s claim, then, that universal preschool will improve educational outcomes for its students disregards the highest-quality research available.
Sadly, it’s no surprise that government programs also have much less incentive to improve care or implement new approaches that could lead to discovering what is more beneficial to kids in the long run. Families also need more flexible options for early childhood education, and universal preschool isn’t going to find them.
Preschools should prepare kids, especially those in poverty, for more than just kindergarten. Poverty devastates the development of both memory and attention skills—two important indicators of future socioeconomic status.
To ensure long-term benefits for children in poverty, one might think that preschool instruction should focus on developing memory and attention skills as well as math and literacy knowledge. But experts know very little about how to best teach these softer skills to preschool-age children.
In other words, no one really knows how to best teach the skills that would help children succeed later in life. What is known, though, is that effective ways never are going to be tested and discovered in a top-down, universal preschool system.
A less burdensome regulatory environment with fully portable Head Start funds for those who qualify is the best way to encourage innovation in early childhood education. Empowering parents with choice and removing artificial restrictions on the supply of preschool providers will put pressure on private schools to implement new educational approaches that focus on both constrained and unconstrained skills without endless bureaucratic red tape.
The Biden administration’s proposal would pile on more expensive requirements when too many regulations already burden preschools and their teachers. To comply, preschools likely will look the same and have less flexibility to try approaches that actually could help students in the long run and provide more options for families.
For instance, mandated student-to-teacher ratios are significantly associated with higher average cost of preschool. And to become a preschool teacher, it takes a little over five years on average to fulfill educational and safety requirements, making it the second most burdensome occupation to enter, according to the Institute for Justice. And these regulations still don’t produce long-term benefits for children.
Innovation can’t happen when the government dominates the market. When “free” government preschools exist, private, locally owned schools must raise tuition to comply with expensive, ineffective government guidelines that don’t guarantee a quality education.
When many private preschools are allowed to flourish, they can be more competitive and less expensive, and have more freedom to experiment and find beneficial ways to help the children they teach.
Parents have the right to determine what is best for their children and to participate in a free market that can produce high-quality, innovative child care and preschool options.
Policymakers should support this endeavor by getting rid of exorbitant regulations and then getting out of the picture. After 57 years, it’s time for Washington to quit the preschool business.
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