Expanding the Schooling Monopoly One Toddler at a Time

preschool_MLUniversal preschool is (again) making headlines as a cure for what ails us. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is the latest in a long line of politicians claiming universal, government-run preschool will improve high school graduation rates, as well as college and job preparation.

A few years back House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was insisting that we have a childcare “crisis,” which, of course, only government can fix. President Obama has repeatedly insisted universal preschool critical for long-term economic prosperity. And, Hillary Clinton has vowed to advance Obama’s “Preschool for All” by doubling Head Start Funding, which is currently $8.6 billion.

The ineffectiveness of government-run preschool is well documented. Moreover, the programs hailed by preschool proponents have serious flaws. (See also here and here.)

A closer look at Mayor de Blasio’s “Pre-K for All” plan, however, reveals the true agenda behind the push for universal preschool.

He touts it as a promise to disadvantaged children that “regardless of their family’s means or the zip code they call home, will have access to a life-changing early education.”

The number of children enrolled NYC Pre-K for All has more than tripled since 2013, from 20,000 children to more than 65,000 children as of this school year—which isn’t surprising since there’s no family income requirement to receive the subsidy.

Last year, UC Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller found that just 30 percent of the preschool classrooms were in the Big Apple’s poorest school districts. What’s more, about half the children enrolled in the taxpayer subsidized program had previously attended non-subsidized private preschools. Other data showed that Mayor de Blasio’s universal preschool program added less than 200 children from the bottom 20 percent of household income zip codes.

Essentially what plans like de Blasio’s do is simply expand the taxpayer-subsidized monopoly public schooling system to include four- and eventually three-year-olds regardless of their family income.  What a boon that would be to New York school districts, which currently spend over $20,000 per-student on average.

Using the plight of disadvantaged families to expand government schooling is nothing new.

Nearly 200 years ago members of the Boston School Committee wanted to phase out private schools in favor of government schools, insisting that poor parents could not afford private school tuition. Yet the committee’s own survey results revealed that, on the contrary, 96 percent of the city’s children already attended school.

Thomas Paine appears to have predicted that compulsory schooling proponents would justify subsidies for public schools by appealing to the plight of poor children. In 1791 in the section of his seminal work The Rights of Man entitled the “Ways and Means of improving the Conditions of Europe, etc.,” Paine suggests that instead of subsidizing a schooling system, public funds should instead be provided to poor parents directly in the form of a voucher so they could send their children to schools of their choice. “Education, to be useful to the poor, should be on the spot; and the best method, I believe, to accomplish this, is to enable the parents to pay the expense themselves.”

Of course, the real agenda for people such as the Boston School Committee and their modern-day counterparts isn’t so much about helping the poor. It’s about expanding the public schooling system.

The percentage of 3- and 4-year olds nationwide attending private preschool programs has dropped from 57 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2014. Still, that percentage represents more than 1.8 million children. Subsidizing them as part of the public school system, even at just half of average per-student funding ($6,000), would add about $12 billion more to school districts’ annual budgets.

In a radio interview at the start of the school year, Mayor de Blasio laid bare what he considers the future of preschool in America:

The mayor imagined that in the future, pre-kindergarten would be not just universally available but compulsory.

“I think that is the way of the future,” he said. “I think there’s a great sense here that something very special is happening where we can take a whole school system of kids—every background, every neighborhood—and get them all on a strong start at the same time.”

In other words, what de Blasio considers “special” is forcing millions of individual children into a system where they’ll all be treated the same, and where the average high school senior graduates without having achieved proficiency in math or reading.

Personally, I prefer the Paine plan to de Blasio’s.

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For the authoritative examination of the history and impact of the U.S. Department of Education and the need for innovative reforms based on educational choice and opportunity, see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children, by Vicki E. Alger.

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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