Dr. Allan Carlson | March 1, 2005

French preschool wrong for Oklahoma

Dr. Allan Carlson

The utopian allure of group care for small children is a recurring theme in human history. The most recent listener to this ancient sirens' song appears to be Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry. Returning from a November visit to France, he declared that he was "very impressed" by the French system of early childhood education, which features the universal enrollment of three- and four-year-olds in school. Governor Henry claimed that results for France "validated" Oklahoma's own program that funds universal preschool for all four-year olds. "We're doing the right things in Oklahoma," he said.1

Surrogate Parenting Throughout History

Writing in the 4th century B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato laid out a vision of a society built on collective childrearing in his dialogue, Republic. "Friends share," the philosopher reasoned, which meant that "all the women are to be shared among all the men. And that the children are also to be shared with no parent knowing which child is his, or the child knowing his parents." These children would be placed in collective nurseries and schools, to be cared for and taught by persons "who live in a separate section of the community." The parents would be freed up to pursue other tasks; the children would gain their early education from specialists.2

An American case for the same goal came from the feminist visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In her 1915 utopian novel, Herland, Gilman writes of a perfect society built on the group care of little children: "Childrearing has come to be with us a culture so profoundly studied, practiced with such subtlety and skill, that the more we love our children the less we are willing to trust that process to unskilled hands - even our own." The natural mother willingly places her child in group care, for "there are others whom she knows to be wiser. She honors their real superiority. For the child's sake, she is glad to have for it this higher care."3

Turning to nonfiction, Gilman explained that parents were no longer capable of preparing small children for the future: "It is in the training of children for this [modern] stage of human life that the private home has ceased to be sufficient, or the isolated, primitive, dependent woman capable." The typical young mother was clumsy, inefficient, ignorant: "No mother has ever learned her business; and our children pass under the well-meaning experiments of an endless succession of amateurs."4

Early 20th century American Progressives also saw the care and teaching of small children at home as a problem. As the historian Arthur Calhoun wrote in his influential 1918 volume, A Social History of the American Family: "The new view is that the higher and more obligatory relation is to society rather than to family. The family goes back to the age of savagery, while the state belongs to the age of civilization. The modern individual is a world citizen, served by the world, and home interests can no longer be supreme."5

Advocates for universal preschool were also heartened by The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project of the 1960s. Designed and directed by the energetic David Weikart, the experiment ran from 1962 to 1967. Weikart and his team identified 123 low-income African-American children in Ypsilanti, Michigan, deemed to be at high risk of school failure. They assigned 58 of them to a high-quality preschool program at ages 3-4, supplemented by weekly visits by the children's teacher to their homes, where the low-income parents (almost always mothers) learned how to be better teachers themselves. The other 65 children were in a group that received no preschool program and no visits.

Since then, project staff have collected data on the participants at different ages, most recently at age 40. The results are, at first look, striking. For example, the preschool program group outperformed the no-program group on "highest level of schooling completed (65% vs. 45% graduating from regular high school)." The program group also outperformed the non-program cohort on language tests, economic performance, arrest record, health, and family results. The High/Scope project team goes on to claim a public cost and benefit savings of $195,621 per child, against a cost of only $15,166.6 Such results have left many public policy-makers in a euphoric state, from the architects of Head Start in the 1960s to many Oklahoma policy-makers in 2005.

The European Model

And Gov. Henry now draws similar encouragement from the French model of early childhood education. The system found in France, though, is actually but a variation on the Family Policy System now dominant throughout the European Union.7 The true source of this model is the nation of Sweden; its earliest architect was the Democratic Socialist Alva Myrdal.

During the early 1930s, fertility was falling sharply in that land, and the country's very survival seemed threatened. Conservatives pointed to "irresponsible," "irreligious," and "immoral" practices among young adults. Alva Myrdal cleverly turned these arguments on their heads. Under existing liberal capitalist conditions, she said, it was actually responsible to refuse to bring children into the world. The traditional home resting on a breadwinning father and homemaking mother must go. The nation could be saved only by socializing the costs and burdens of children. This would require the radical reconstruction of all national life. All women must also be empowered as workers outside the home. Central economic planning would be needed to guide the economy in child-friendly ways. A massive welfare state should provide marriage loans to young adults, free school meals, state allowances for the purchase of clothing, universal housing subsidies, universal medical and dental care, free access to contraceptives (to insure that all children would be wanted), and early sex education for the children. This underscored the need for universal parental leave, state-funded day care, and all-day preschools.8

During the 1940s, the Swedish government rejected the Myrdal plan, opting instead for "family wages" for fathers and other supports for stay-at-home mothers, including pro-family tax measures. The Swedish birth rate rose again and remained high until about 1970, when these successful policies were tossed out.

In 2005, the Swedes and all other Europeans are again beset by sharply falling fertility, and they have turned this time to the Myrdal model as their answer.9 Drawing on the shared vision of Plato, Gilman, the Progressives, and Myrdal, the European approach still assumes that the future rests on: eliminating the full-time mother and homemaker; abolishing the home as an economic institution; welcoming cohabitation; ending marriage as a distinctive legal status; strictly enforcing gender equality in all aspects of life; socializing the differential costs of children; and providing a universal state program of subsidized day care, preschools, and kindergarten. This is the "European model" that beguiles and bewitches certain visiting Americans.

Myths and Realities

So, what should we make of all this? To begin with, it is important to untangle certain realities from the modern mythologies that obscure them.

Myth #1: American preschoolers are generally unprepared for learning. This assumption drives most advocates for universal early childhood education. But it vanishes under scrutiny. As a 2000 study of America's kindergartners reports, our nation's five-year-olds actually begin formal schooling in excellent shape. On entering kindergarten, 94 percent of the children are able to count to ten and to recognize numbers and shapes. Some 92 percent are ready and eager to learn; and only three percent suffer from poor health.10 These numbers exceed figures for France, Spain, Belgium, and England, suggesting the overblown reputation of the European model. American children lose their edge only after age nine.11 This, however, is an indictment of American public schools which, on balance, take superior pre-schoolers and transform them into relative failures. This strongly suggests that policy attention should focus on improving schools attended by nine- to 18-year-olds, not preschoolers.

Myth #2: The High/Scope Perry Preschool results show the broad applicability of this project. As even its organizers admit, the High/Scope project had unique characteristics: well-educated teachers with at least a bachelor's degree; a student-teacher ratio of 6 to 1; two school years at ages 3 and 4; daily classes of at least two and a half hours; a special educational model; and a home visit every week by the teacher. Moreover, the target audience was ethnically homogeneous (African-American) and uniformly low-income. No other study has ever replicated the High/Scope Perry results, in part because of the expense involved, both immediate and long term. Although the U.S. government's "Head Start" program was justified almost exclusively by an appeal to this project, the Perry leaders are clear that Head Start "clearly does not meet the standard of reasonable similarity with the Perry Preschool program."12

Moreover, the actual long-term educational results of the project showed a curious result: only girls benefited. An impressive 84 percent of program girls graduated from high school, compared to only 32 percent of no-program girls. However, among boys, 54 percent of no-program males graduated compared to only 50 percent of program males! And program males were slightly more likely to repeat a grade than non-program males (among girls, the opposite was true).13

Finally, the Perry project researchers really do not know what part of their project mix actually produced their results. I knew David Weikart, founder of the program. From 1988 to 1993, we served together on the National Commission of Children. In one conversation, he even suggested to me that all of the positive results achieved may have had little to do with the preschool programming. Instead, he thought sometimes that the weekly home visit by the teachers may have had the more powerful effect - by making disadvantaged, low-income parents better home teachers.

Myth #3: The European model is succeeding. Putting on a brave face, European pundits claim that Europe's project of keeping mothers at work and young children in "high quality" care and learning centers will save the European Union from depopulation. As Jean-Claude Chesnois summarizes, "in Sweden, empowerment of women insures against a very low birth rate."14

In fact, Europe's fertility is tumbling, including Sweden's. In any generation, each woman needs to bear an average of 2.1 children for the population just to replace itself. For the EU as a whole, the current figure is slightly below 1.5, and falling. (Sweden comes in at 1.54). In large parts of Europe (such as northern Italy and eastern Germany), the figure is below 1.0, portending rapid population loss. Moreover, in the year 2000, Europe's population "momentum" - a measure of the fertility potential of the continent's human age-structure - turned from "positive" to "negative."15

It turns out that separating mothers from their small children results in fewer children, a result that should hardly be surprising.16 The European model - including the universal expectation of day care/early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds - proves to be a dead end. In contrast, of all the developed nations, only the United States still shows a fertility rate slightly above 2.1. And this is not just a function of a greater ethnic diversity. Even Americans of European origin record a fertility rate exceeding 2.1. Rather, "the American model," still resting to some degree on the home, provides vastly better prospects for a sustainable future.

Myth #4: Home education is inferior and incomplete education. While he would certainly never admit it publicly, this is the belief held by Governor Henry. Why else would he be so eager to put more and more of Oklahoma's children into preschools? In fact, while good research on homeschooling is just beginning to emerge, the best evidence we have shows that learning at home is far superior to group learning, at all ages. As a 1999 federal study found, in grades one through four, median test scores for home-schooled children are a full grade above those of public and private school students. By grade eight, homeschoolers' median scores are almost four grade equivalents above their peers in public and private schools.17 That is not a misprint. The domination of national spelling and geography bees by home-schoolers in recent years testifies as well to the ability of home-centered education to motivate extraordinary achievement. If intellectual achievement and creativity are the goals, then clearly the best strategy is to encourage learning at home.

Policy Recommendations

How might Oklahomans do this? The state could begin by cutting back on preschool subsidies and taking some of the taxation pressure off young families, making it easier for one parent to stay at home full time or to work part time. Options to this end could include:

  • Creating a special credit of $250 against the state income tax for each preschool child;
  • Crafting a broad education tax credit for all preschool, school, or homeschool expenses. One model found in Illinois allows a 20 percent credit against all schooling costs (including books, materials, and tuition) up to $500 per family; or
  • Crafting a general child tax credit, available to all children, as proposed by Rep. Kevin Calvey, chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. He suggests a modest credit of $50 per child, at the cost to the state of $20 million.

Even such small sums can influence family decisions "on the margin." Parents - mothers and fathers - overwhelmingly favor giving full-time parental care to small children at home. A Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates survey conducted last year asked Oklahoma voters, "Which of the following do you believe is the best childcare situation during a child's earliest years?" A full 70 percent answered "one parent at home." Only nine percent answered "being in a quality daycare center." Among Oklahoma mothers, the results were even more striking: 87 percent to four percent. Tax credits affirm parents' choice and make it easier for families to get along on less than two full-time jobs.

Governor Henry says that Oklahoma is leading the nation with its comprehensive preschool program. Perhaps so, but it is leading America in the wrong direction. I urge Oklahomans to change course and guide their state and nation toward a true, family-affirming, learning-centered homecoming.

Three-Year-Olds Need Sippy Cups, Not School Desks

In a report released last month on early education programs, Goldwater Institute president Darcy Olsen calls into question the advisability of plans to increase government involvement in early education, including kindergarten.

The report, "Assessing Proposals for Preschool and Kindergarten: Essential Information for Parents, Taxpayers and Policymakers," examines the results of model early education programs including Perry Preschool, Abecedarian, and Head Start. The report, which is available online at, finds that widespread adoption of preschool and full-day kindergarten is unlikely to improve student achievement.

History is telling. Since 1965, enrollment of four-year-olds in early education programs has increased from 16 to 66 percent, yet test scores are virtually unchanged. However, U.S. students routinely outperform their international peers in the early years, indicating that American students are well served by a flexible approach to early education where parents choose the setting, including home care, that is best for their children.

While U.S. children are "A" students in fourth grade, they are "D" students by 12th grade. "The good news is America's early education system is among the best in the world. The bad news is the secondary system is among the worst. There are solutions, but trading sippy cups for school desks is not one of them," Olsen said.

Nonetheless, advocates for government preschool perpetuate the myth that poor school performance is the result of inadequate early preparation. According to American Federation of Teachers president emeritus Sandra Feldman, the United States "can't afford not to" adopt a preprimary program sculpted after the French system that enrolls nearly all 3- and 4-year-olds in government schools. Yet, U.S. fourth-graders routinely outperform their European peers in reading, math and science, and are more literate than the French.

In "Blueprint for a Nanny State," an April 2001 study published by OCPA, Olsen pointed out that "in 2000, Oklahoma spent $472,905,000 in federal and state dollars for early childhood education for children under the age of five. That's an estimated $2,033 per child, or $9,036 per child in poverty." Oklahoma is already paying enough to send every infant, toddler, and preschooler in poverty to a full-time early education facility, or to send every infant, toddler, and preschooler to school part-time." Olsen recommends measures for transparency, program assessment, and improved flexibility through individual student funding.

"This report provides an invaluable review of existing early childhood research," Heritage Foundation senior education policy analyst Krista Kafer said. "It separates rhetoric from fact at a time when policymakers need to know the truth." Among other findings, the report examines Georgia's recent experience with universal preschool. After ten years, the program has served over 300,000 children at a cost of $1.15 billion, yet children's test scores are unchanged.

"Fundamentally, the early education discussion is not about the effectiveness or cost of the programs. At heart is the question of in whose hands the responsibility for young children rests," Olsen said. "Further entrenching the state into the lives of young children cannot be squared with a free society that cherishes the primacy of the family over the state.


1. "Henry Lauds Education Programs," The Oklahoman (Nov. 18, 2004): 15A.
2. Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993): 159-83.
3. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915), chapter 7; found at
4. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study in the Economic Relations Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, ed. Carl N. Degler (New York: Harper & Row, 1986 [1898]): 270-94.
5. Arthur W. Calhoun, A Social History of the American Family (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1945 [1918]): 171-72.
6. Lawrence J. Schweinhart, The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40: Summary, Conclusions, and Frequently Asked Questions (Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press, 2005): 1-4.
7. On the unitary nature of the European model, see: European Commission, "Modernizing and Improving Social Protection in the European Union: Communication from the Commission" (1997); and Herbert Krieger, "Family Life in Europe - Results of Recent Surveys on Quality of Life in Europe," Family Paper #8, The European Commission (2002).
8. From: Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, Kris i befolkningsfrgan (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1934). A watered-down version of this argument appears in: Alva Myrdal, Nation and Family (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941).
9. See: J.M. Hoem, "Social Policy and Recent Fertility Change in Sweden," Population and Development Review 16 (1990): 735-48; Paul Demeny, "Population Policy Dilemmas in Europe at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century," Population and Development Review 29 (March 2003): 1-22; and Lena Sommestad, "Gender Equality - A Key to Our Future" Published by The Swedish Institute, 1 September 2001. Found at: http:/ (11/8/2004).
10. U.S. Department of Education, "America's Kindergartners," NCES 200-070, February 2000.
11. On these points, see: Darcy Ann Olsen, "Blueprint for a Nanny State," OCPA Policy Paper No. 01-3 (April 2001).
12. Schweinhart, The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40, p. 11.
13. Ibid., p. 17.
14. Jean-Claude Chesnois, "Fertility, Family, and Social Policy in Contemporary Europe," Population and Development Review 26 (September 2000): 438.
15. Wolfgang Lutz, Brian C. O'Neill, Sergei Sherbov, "Europe's Population at a Turning Point," Science 299 (28 March 2003): 1991-92.
16. See: Heather Jossi, "Projections of European Population Decline: Serious Demography or False Alarm?" in David Coleman, ed., Europe's Population in the 1990s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990): 263.
17. Lawrence M. Rudner, "Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998," Education Policy Analysis Archives 7 (23 Mar. 1999): 19.

Dr. Allan Carlson (Ph.D. in Modern European History, Ohio University) is president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois, and Distinguished Fellow in Family Policy Studies at the Family Research Council. His newest book is Fractured Generations: Crafting a Family Policy for Twenty-First-Century America (Transaction, 2005).

Dr. Allan Carlson

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