Parental Choice, Not Compulsory Preschool, Is “The Way of the Future”

32225507_MLNew York City Mayor Bill de Blasio claims that compulsory preschool is “the way of the future.”

Along with Nancy Pelosi, President Obama, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, de Blasio claims universal, public preschool will improve high school graduation rates, as well as college and job preparation.

The ineffectiveness of the largest and longest-running federal preschool program Head Start is well documented, including the fact that any positive effects begin fading out as early as first grade and were largely dissipated by third grade – hardly the basis for the long-term future benefits politicians keep promising.

Other programs hailed by preschool proponents such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program each have serious limitations that make them inappropriate models for large-scale programs.

This lackluster track record hasn’t stopped policymakers from charging ahead with such programs as New York City’s Pre-K for All program. De Blasio has touted the program 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.”

Since 2013 program participation has more than tripled, from 20,000 children to more than 65,000 children as of this school year, and it’s projected to reach more than 70,000 children.

For all the claims that Pre-K for All will help the poor, the program is largely subsidizing already well-to-do parents, which isn’t surprising since there’s no family income requirement to participate.

Just 30 percent of the preschool classrooms were in the Big Apple’s poorest school districts. About half the children enrolled had previously attended non-subsidized private preschools. And, less than 200 children from the bottom 20 percent of household income zip codes are participating in Pre-K for all.

Presented with this evidence, de Blasio went on the offensive and laid bare the real universal preschool agenda: the expansion of compulsory schooling.

“Just as we once upon a time decided kids needed first grade and then decided they needed kindergarten, I think we’re going to come to the conclusion that all kids need pre-K,” according to de Blasio.

Using the plight of disadvantaged families to expand public schooling is nothing new. Nearly 200 years ago members of the Boston School Committee wanted to replace private schools with public schools, insisting that poor parents could not afford private school tuition.

When the committee’s own survey results revealed that 96 percent of the city’s children already attended school, including those from low-income families, universalists were forced to admit that compulsory public schooling was their real agenda.

Thomas Paine appears to have predicted that compulsory schooling proponents would justify subsidies for public schools by appealing to the plight of poor children. He recommended that better way to help those in genuine need—rather than expand a particular schooling system—would be directing funds to parents 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.”

Today, more than 300,000 K-12 students are using voucher and tax-credit scholarships, as well as education savings accounts (ESAs) to attend the schools and programs of their parents’—not politicians’—choice.

Subsidizing public options exclusively crowds out private providers and diminishes competition for students and associated funding that helps ensure all providers offer high-quality programs for the lowest cost.

While many states operate pre-K programs that allow public schools to sub-contract with private providers, since 2005 a growing number of states empower parents to choose private providers directly.

The first and largest such program is Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten (VBK) program, which began operating in 2005. It now enrolls more than 166,000 four-year-olds (pp. 67-68; cf. here). Other states that allow parents to choose private providers include:  Alabama, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon (nonsectarian private providers are excluded, p. 135), Rhode Island, and South Carolina (p. 145).

Arizona’s landmark education savings account (ESA) program deposits 90 percent of state funding into designated accounts for eligible students whose parents do not prefer public schools, including preschool students with disabilities. Parents receive a dedicated-use debit card to pay for eligible educational services and supplies, and regular audits ensure funds are not misused. The program has earned an unprecedented 100% satisfaction rating, and parents report their children are thriving academically and socially.

Rather than expanding a particular school system by subsidizing those who can already afford to pay for preschool and conscripting toddlers whose parents don’t want it, we should be following Paine’s advice so low-income parents can find and finance the schools they believe are best for their children.

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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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