No one doubts the unfortunate outcomes that many children from lower-income households face: lower high school and college graduation rates, reduced earnings and higher rates of out-of-wedlock birth, among other obstacles. And when it comes to solutions, nearly everyone acknowledges the effectiveness of high-quality early childhood education for improving those children’s lots.
So the president’s goal of expanding access to early childhood education is an admirable one. However, the praise shouldn’t go beyond admiring his intentions.
In truth, while we know early intervention and increased preschool education produce real benefits, government programs have rarely created the lasting gains needed to improve outcomes. For example, the Head Start Program has been expanded many times, but its long-term benefits remain questionable. W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, points out in a recent Washington Post piece that many more reforms are needed, “including substantial deregulation at the federal level.” He also cites the need to unshackle the program “from unrealistic mission expansion and agency micromanagement.”
Current policy locks students into programs whose value is questionable. While it’s tempting to rush in to solve what is arguably the largest civil rights issue of our day, expanding Head Start would exacerbate negative bureaucratic inertia that will be hard to undo. We’ve seen this play out before in the intense battles over school reform in K-12 education. Why should we force children into failing systems even earlier?
There is also irony in how the White House proposes to fund Head Start expansion, with a 94 cent increase in the cigarette tax. When it comes to cigarette taxes, policymakers agree on two major points: they are incredibly regressive (the median household income for adult smokers was only $27,000 in 2011 and lower-income smokers spend much more of their income on cigarettes than higher-income smokers) and they are incredibly effective at reducing smoking. So whatever benefits lower-income families glean from Head Start, they’ll also shoulder much of the cost. Some families who participate won’t pay the tax, and some who pay the tax won’t participate in the program. Nonetheless, the concept of an anti-poverty program whose cost is shouldered by those in poverty still has an odd ring.
And in the end, the program will have to find funding elsewhere. The administration’s own projections show funding will decline as the tax causes a decline in smoking rates. Some argue that by the time the program needs additional support, it will have paid for itself through better outcomes for children. But this assumes the program will be a success, and as noted above, success rates have been limited. It would be better to recognize the limits of the state and find ways to fund proven programs, much as states are attempting to do with vouchers and charter schools today.
A final word of warning to Republicans: the gap in outcomes between rich and poor children is tremendous, and shouldn’t be ignored. Though the plan isn’t the best solution, the administration should be lauded for its attempt to do something to address the problem. If Republicans are truly the party of opportunity and merit, they should be dedicated to improving the lives of the most vulnerable among us – children from low-income households – so that they have equal opportunity to join the ranks of productive workers in our modern economy.
So, look at the administration’s actions as a line in the sand, a declaration from Democrats that something must be done. Then understand that if another solution isn’t crafted in the next few years, we will undoubtedly end up with the preschool version of Obamacare. No one wants to see more and younger children subject to the bureaucratic morass that is the American education system today. But no one should want the other outcomes we’re seeing today either, where by age three, and perhaps even earlier, children from working and lower classes are already falling behind.
Innovative policy solutions are possible, but first, Republicans must admit the truth about declining mobility and embrace solutions that empower communities and parents. The alternative is a dangerous scenario.