| October 1, 2013

Empower parents, not preschool programs

“Rumblings are once again underway,” writes Collette Caprara of The Heritage Foundation, “indicating movement on President Obama’s State of the Union proposal to ‘work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,’ and to drive forward his agenda to create a ‘cradle to career’ government education system.”

I said at the time that President Obama’s idea was problematic, and Caprara agrees. She writes:

A new study published by the journal Science found that pre-kindergarten classes that received the highest quality scores in ratings systems used by most of the states [including Oklahoma] were no better in preparing children for school than were classes with lower ratings.

As an indicator of what kind of results might be expected from universal day care, a trial case in Oklahoma — one of the two states that the President applauded for providing taxpayer-funded preschool for all four-year-olds — is illustrative. Oklahoma has not shown substantial progress in students’ academic achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, fourth-grade reading test scores in the Sooner State have declined since 1998, when the state first implemented universal preschool.

“Rather than increasing government involvement in preschool care,” Caprara writes, “public policy should focus on initiatives to promote marriage, strengthen families, and optimize opportunities for parents to care for their own children.” Not only is this good policy, it’s good politics. For this is precisely what Oklahomans prefer.

As I’ve pointed out before, in 2011 the respected survey firm SoonerPoll asked Oklahoma voters: “Now thinking about early-childhood policies in Oklahoma, do you think state government should focus more on creating and expanding programs for children from birth to age five, or making it easier and more affordable for one parent to stay at home with children from birth to age five?” Only 26 percent of respondents said programs, while 57 percent said parents. Among women, the margin was 30 percent to 56 percent. Among women with household income under $35,000, the margin was 29 percent to 57 percent.

“In two important ways, Oklahoma is a national leader in early childhood education,” the SoonerPoll surveyor continued. “First, among all the states Oklahoma has the highest percentage of four-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs. Secondly, Oklahoma is one of the few states that offer a tax break for stay-at-home parents. Assuming there is a limited amount of money, which of the following do you think should take precedence: Increasing the amount of money spent on preschool programs for four-year-olds, or expanding the tax break for parents who stay at home with their four-year-olds?” Oklahoma parents prefer the tax break by a margin of 55 percent to 31 percent. Among women, the margin was 51 percent to 35 percent. Among women with household income under $35,000, the margin was 55 percent to 29 percent.

Whatever the policy mechanism — tax credits, tax cuts, or Arizona-style Education Savings Accounts — it’s time to empower parents.

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