| May 23, 2011

For universal (pre)school choice

Universal government preschool is a policy beloved of utopian visionaries and Western Europeans, but one which conservatives should oppose on fiscal and even more serious grounds. Unsurprisingly, leading conservatives (Heritage Foundation, Eagle Forum) and libertarians (Cato Institute, Reason Foundation) do in fact oppose it.

Oklahoma’s state constitution originally required compulsory school attendance for children “between the ages of eight and sixteen years, for at least three months in the year.” The legislature later expanded the school year and lowered the age to seven, then to five. Today, an astonishing 71 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds are in state prekindergarten. Incredibly, 2,325 three-year-olds were in pre-K classrooms last year. One is reminded of the fire captain’s remark in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451: “We’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle.”

In any case, as I argued five years ago in The Oklahoman ("Common ground on preschool?"), if our public policy is to institutionalize small children, then parents should be empowered with more options—a view endorsed two years ago in Oklahoma City by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman. Certain Oklahoma four-year-olds already have school choice (special-needs scholarships and opportunity scholarships), but these options need to be expanded significantly (like this, for example, and this).

If we're going to have universal preschool, we deserve universal preschool choice.

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