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J. Michael Smith, Esq.
President

Michael P. Farris, Esq.
Chairman

Why Government Should Stay out of Early Education

William A. Estrada, Esq.
Director of Federal Relations

July 20, 2009

Introduction

As government increasingly seeks to supplant the private and family spheres, there is yet another form of federal intrusion on the rise: institutionalized early education. In a misguided effort to allegedly assist children from birth to kindergarten, early education advocates have created massive programs that are of questionable necessity and come at the expense of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars and parental freedoms. Furthermore, institutionalized early childhood intervention is an assault on the limited form of government envisioned by our nation's founding fathers and embraced by American citizens.

Inconclusive Early Education Research

While proponents of institutionalized early education support their claim that early education is necessary and effective by pointing to childhood education research, the results of such studies are, at best, mixed. Many early education advocates cite the massive studies on child care and youth development sponsored by the NICHD to bolster support for institutionalized early education programs. While many NICHD studies do, in fact, report some positive effects of early education, they simultaneously indicate several negative outcomes of early education programs. For example, in 2007 the NICHD reported in a single study that early childcare increased children’s vocabulary, but that children who spent more time in institutionalized early education were more likely than their non pre-schooled counterparts to exhibit problematic behaviors, such as bullying, aggression, and acting out, through the sixth grade.1 Proponents of government-funded early education often tout the first part of this study, which reflects favorably on early education, while ironically neglecting to mention the latter portion of the report. Such cherry picking is academically dishonest and hardly sound methodology for designing and implementing public education policy.

Numerous independent research groups, (which are inherently more isolated from the big government bias of federal research facilities), also report very mixed results in their studies on the effectiveness of early education. The pros and cons of early education programs reduce early education enrollment to a cost-benefit analysis—or gamble—as opposed to a slam-dunk strategy for elementary school readiness. Furthermore, a study from Stanford University and the University of California found that early education outcomes are heavily influenced by social and economic factors like race, ethnicity, and financial status. The study concludes: “…universal access [to preschool] would not likely close early learning gaps…extending free preschool to all children—perhaps a well-intentioned goal—threatens to simply reinforce disparities in early learning until resources are more carefully targeted on low-income communities.”2

The Heritage Foundation recently reviewed Oklahoma and Georgia’s comprehensive early education programs that have been in existence for over ten years, and determined that despite high state spending, “neither state has experienced significant sustained improvement in students’ academic achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading examination.”3

The Exorbitant Cost of Early Education

Federally funded early education programs come with a hefty price tag—at the expense of the American taxpayer. For example, in the 110th Congress the Pre-K Act (H.R. 3289), a “nanny state” bill that would have increased government control over early education, would have cost taxpayers $500 million for each fiscal year through 2013 had it become law. This would have amounted to a grand total of $2.5 billion in the five years following the bill’s implementation.4 Upon entering the White House, President Obama announced his support of early education programs for children from birth through age 5, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “Stimulus Bill”) alone included a whopping $5 billion for early learning programs, such as Head Start.5 Clearly, the expense of early education programs is exorbitant and can be expected to grow as government continues to expand. While we all want what is best for our nation’s youth, to spend Americans’ tax dollars on programming that is unnecessary and of questionable effectiveness is fiscally irresponsible.

Making Early Education Politically Correct

In addition to the skyrocketing cost of early education is the alarming potential, or perhaps guarantee, that institutionalized early education will be a launching pad for policy makers’ personal political agendas and “politically correct” ideologies. Many early education bills seek to expand government control over education by offering grants to states that “improve’ state-funded preschool programs by implementing a number of provisions, including government-approved curriculum, which could be tailored to fit a political agenda and may not respect many parents’ religious beliefs and values. Since the programs’ educational content must meet state approval, it is quite likely that the curriculum will cover highly politicized topics. Under the guise of “diversity training” and “tolerance,” many preschools already teach young children about politically charged issues like gender and gender identity, multiculturalism, and feminism.

Early Education and the Erosion of Parental Rights

Early education constitutes yet another intrusion of big government, this time imposing itself directly into the home and parental atmosphere. Institutionalized, government-approved early education programs threaten parents’ right to direct the upbringing and education of their children by forcing subjective screenings and state-approved, politicized curriculum upon America’s impressionable youth. Some early education bills include provisions for socio-emotional/mental health screenings, which, unlike vision or hearing tests, are based on inherently subjective diagnostic criteria. After children are identified as needing mental health services or medication, it is not clear if their parents will have the ability to refuse such treatment. Similarly, once trusting parents enroll their children in institutionalized early education, there is no guarantee that they will have any advance warning or authority over what their child is exposed to in the classroom.

While early education advocates correctly point out that institutionalized early education programs are voluntary, many parents may not be fully aware that the programs are optional and may feel pressured to accept government services out of fear that their refusal could lead to negative repercussions from federal agencies in the future. Also, many poor American families depend on government aid—will those individuals be truly free to decline the conditions accompanying government assistance? For such underprivileged families, early education services would not, in fact, be voluntary because the family could not realistically opt out of the programs and risk losing much needed benefits.

Furthermore, the fact that federal early education bills presently label institutionalized early education programs as voluntary does not a guarantee that early education will remain optional once implemented on the state level. Since the legislation offers grants to states for early education purposes, states will have a strong incentive to take advantage of the federal funding and create early education programs while enjoying considerable leeway in regard to the programs’ execution. Hence, early education legislation essentially gives states a blank check that could very well result in state mandated early education.

A look into the history of formerly voluntary government programs that are now mandatory renders cause for serious concern. Given the continuous growth of government, federal programs almost always expand beyond their original scope. While early education programs may be optional now, a simple rewrite of an early education bill by a future legislature is all that is needed to force institutionalized early education upon all American families.

Conclusion

In the realm of early education, there is neither compelling evidence nor constitutional justification for government involvement. Institutionalized early education programs are an assault on parental rights and limited government. It is parents, not the government, who know what is best for their children. Many early education bills are geared toward military families; it is especially outrageous to use the families who have sacrificed so much for our country as proverbial guinea pigs for government experimentation. Given institutionalized early education’s appalling track record in regard to its effectiveness and expense, and the high probability that such programs will be ripe for government mandated morality, early education legislation ought to be strongly and unequivocally opposed.

Endnotes

1. “Early Child Care Linked to Increases in Vocabulary, Some Problem Behaviors in Fifth and Sixth Grades.” National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). NIH News. 26 March 2007.

2. Susanna Loeb, et al. How Much is Too much? The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children’s Development Nationwide, (Stanford University and the University of California). Presented at Association for Policy Analysis and Management, Washington, D.C., 4 November 2005.

3. Lindsey Burke, “Does Universal Preschool Improve Learning? Lessons from Georgia and Oklahoma,” Heritage Foundation. 14 May 2009. Available at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/upload/bg_2272.pdf

4. Chelsea Schilling. “U.S. Government: We Know Parenting Better Than You.” World Net Daily. 24 July 2008.

5. The White House Web Site. “Education.” http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/ (accessed June 17, 2009).