The Corner

Federal Pre-school Expansion Incredibly Ill-Advised

When President Obama calls for expanding federal preschool and federal spending on day care, remember what federal preschool looks like: the 48-year-old failed experiment with Head Start.

If there was ever a federal program that deserves to be eliminated, it’s Head Start. The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) recently released evaluation of Head Start found that by third grade, the nearly $8 billion program had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional development, health, or parenting practices of participants. On a few measures, access to Head Start had harmful effects on children. HHS (the agency that administers Head Start) followed 5,000 children in a scientifically rigorous evaluation, definitively concluding that the federal government’s nearly half a century experiment with Head Start has failed.

The Obama administration has said time and again that they “will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”If that is President Obama’s test, his calls tonight to expand the federal pre-school programs and spending are misguided.

In all, taxpayers already spend an estimated $25 billion on some 45 federal day-care and pre-school programs annually. The Head Start program costs taxpayers over $7 billion annually. Moreover, funding for child care for low-income families is provided through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) and through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs, to the tune of $10 billion per year.

The limited impact of pre-school isn’t isolated to Head Start. Pre-school has little long-term impact on children’s academic outcomes. A robust body of literature warns that”fade-out” of academic gains is a common problem. Economicresearch suggeststhat “the effects of prekindergarten on skills largely dissipate by the spring of first grade, although the behavioral effects do not.”Translation: Academic gains derived from pre-school disappear by the end of first grade, but the negative effects of pre-school on children’s behavior remain.

The majority of America’s young children already attend pre-school, and new federal spending to expand day care and pre-school would be an expensive and unnecessary taxpayer subsidy for middle-class families. “Free” pre-schools and child care will also furthercrowd out private programs, limiting options for parents.

What’s more, demand for new, large-scale government spending on early-childhood education and care is not evident. Families seem to prefer caring for their children at home in their early years.Strong majorities of mothers indicate that they prefer to stay home when their children are young, with 80 percent of mothers who work part-time indicating that is the ideal scenario for them. 

Instead of increasing federal spending on pre-school and day care, the administration should be working to trim duplicative and ineffective programs, and leave the provision of early-childhood education and care to private providers, and most important, to parents.

Lindsey Burke is the director of education policy and the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.

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