State of the Union 2014: More Preschool Politics?

Pundits are predicting that President Obama will try to recycle last year’s universal, government-run preschool plan in tonight’s State of the Union address.

The Los Angeles Times’ Kathleen Hennessey, for example, isn’t jazzed:

Little of what the president proposes in his most high-profile speech of the year is likely to get done, at least not any time soon. As Obama polishes a fresh list of ideas to tick off Tuesday night, many of last year’s proposals remain unfinished—qqqstymied by a politically divided Washington.

But read a bit further, and it’s not “division” that’s the problem. Bad ideas from Obama and his propensity for Congressional end-runs are the real culprits.

Among the president’s least popular ideas are gun control and a mandatory minimum wage. Hennessey, however, devotes a lot of attention to President Obama’s failure to jump-start his federal universal preschool plan, noting that it hasn’t even had a hearing in the Democratic-controlled Senate, much less the House:

The first year in the life Obama’s preschool plan illustrates the nature of the hurdles ahead. Although Republican governors have moved to expand public preschool and polls show such efforts are popular, the launch of the federal effort was slow and sputtering.

The White House proposed paying to make preschool available to 4-year-olds in nearly all low- and moderate-income families with a 94-cent tobacco tax, an idea spurned by lawmakers from both parties.

‘I was happy to see they at least had some sort of plan for paying for this. It was in itself a bold statement,’ said Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation. ‘But in reality the idea of raising a tax to pay for this was met with a lot of silence.’

The bill took months to draft and, even then, did not include a way to pay for it. In November, it was unveiled by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Democratic lawmakers and its one Republican coauthor in the House. Two months later, only one other Republican has signed on.

But the budget bill passed this month included $250 million to help states expand preschool programs. The White House and its allies view that money as a ‘down payment’ on the president’s plan. House Republicans deny it had anything to do with Obama’s proposal.

But don’t let facts get in the way of taking credit where credit’s not due.

White House education adviser Roberto Rodriguez predicts we’ll be seeing preschool emerge as a national priority—but it won’t be driven by Washington. “I think you’ll see it emerge from states. You’ll see it emerge from cities,” noted Rodriguez. “It will take some time to reach Congress, but it will reach Congress.”

Perhaps it’ll take longer than Mr. Rodriguez thinks because members of Congress know that for all the emotional appeal, the Government’s longest running preschool program, Head Start, has been an expensive, decades-long failure—based on the feds’ own official evaluations.

The best approach is empowering parents to choose what—if any—schooling they think is right for their four-year-olds. Right now, Head Start funding amounts to just under $7.7 billion for 957,000 participants. That works out to more than $8,000 per child.

For all that cash, Head Start impacts are virtually negligible and fade out at early as first grade.

Rather than pump more taxpayer dollars into this or similar government programs, let parents who want and can afford preschool deduct their early education expenditures from their taxes. Instead of funding more ineffective bureaucracies, redirect Head Start program and overhead finding into early education savings accounts (EESAs) for low- and moderate-income families. With those funds parents could choose the schooling options they prefer, and if there are funds left over, parents could set those aside for future schooling expenses, such as after-school tutoring or even college tuition.

Empowering parents, not politicians, is the best preschool policy prescription.

Unfortunately, California seems bound and determined to make universal preschool, referred to as transitional kindergarten, mandatory for all four-year-olds in the state.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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