Bryce Christensen | March 18, 2007

Suffer the Little Children

Bryce Christensen

In his effort to expand non-parental child care, Gov. Henry is citing the available research on the subject quite selectively. By promoting surrogate parenting for three-year-olds while disregarding the research exposing its risks, Henry and his allies are doing the children no favors.

Oklahoma's three-year-olds may be too young to debate public policy. But perhaps more than anyone else, they feel the effects of the surest of all public-policy principles: You get more of what you subsidize, and less of what you tax.

For some time now, Oklahoma policymakers have been subsidizing - even completely paying for - non-parental child care, choosing to fund these child-care subsidies by taking tax money from families who have made financial sacrifices to keep one parent at home with their young children. This subsidize-and-tax strategy continues to find advocates despite clear evidence that it is parental care that best serves almost all young children.

Oklahomans would never know about the virtues of parental child care by listening to Democrat Governor Brad Henry, who actually boasts of the state's status as a "national leader" with 70 percent of all four-year-olds in state-sponsored developmental programs. He now aims to spend an additional $15 million to expand such programs by starting to enroll three-year-olds. "All of the research," Gov. Henry explains, "tells us that the early years are critical to a child's future success."

The governor is right: a child's early years are critical. However, despite his implicit claim that he is drawing on "all the research" in drafting his child-care policy, the governor and his child-care allies are actually reading the available research quite selectively.

True, those wanting to spend yet more state money for non-parental care can point to studies linking high-quality preschool instruction to some long-term educational benefits. In particular, some studies do indicate that preschool programs can reduce a child's later need for special education, can lower the risk that a child will repeat a grade, and can reduce the likelihood that a child will drop out of school before completing high school.

Somehow, though, advocates of more public spending on preschool programs never get around to acknowledging studies showing that virtually all of the cognitive benefits of such programs wash out by the time participants reach third or fourth grade.

What is even more telling, when these advocates of enlarged preschool programs push to get more and more young children involved, they ignore the overwhelming body of evidence indicating that these programs are of benefit only to children from impoverished and severely disadvantaged households. Indeed, even a very favorable Michigan study of the much-lauded Head Start preschool program concludes with an admission that the authors were "unable to provide evidence of the program's efficacy for nonblack children."

Of course, concerned policy-makers will want to do what they can do to help desperately needy children, black and non-black. But policymakers are misleading their constituents when they justify yet more non-parental child care for the general population on the basis of research that simply does not apply to them. Worse, policymakers are actually hurting children when they expand funding for non-parental child care while disregarding research exposing the risks of such care.

Anyone who is truly attentive to "all the research" on child care will take note of studies showing that young children in non-parental care are distinctively vulnerable to epidemic jaundice, childhood meningitis, giardiasis, otitis media, hepatitis A, and various other diseases. Anyone willing to learn from "all the research" will also pay close attention to an exhaustive study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showing that putting young children in day care makes them more aggressive and belligerent - even when that day care is of high quality.

Those willing to investigate "all the research" on child care will also want to attend to a 1994 study concluding that maternal employment - regardless of the mother's occupation - translates into a reduced likelihood that children will graduate from high school or college. Likewise deserving attention is a 1996 study concluding that "the more hours a mother works, the lower [her] children's grades and the poorer their work habits."

The suspicion grows that Gov. Henry and others pushing for more public spending on non-parental child care actually do not want to look at "all the research." They are interested only in research that fits their political agenda. How else can Oklahomans explain a willingness to subsidize non-parental child care with tax money collected from households with a stay-at-home parent?

A Better Way

Fortunately, one prominent Oklahoma lawmaker - none other than Lance Cargill, the Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives - does seem disposed to craft child-care policy that takes into account "all the research." His approach to child care reflects real understanding of the potentially harmful effects of paying subsidies for non-parental child care out of taxes collected from families caring for their own children. Speaker Cargill has introduced a measure (HB 1295) that would allow households with a stay-at-home mom (or dad) to claim tax credits equivalent to those now claimed by Oklahoma parents who put their children in daycare.

The Speaker's explanation of his initiative is compelling: "I'm a firm believer in parents being able to stay home with their children. It's something we should be encouraging in Oklahoma, not discouraging through unfair tax policies. Stay-at-home moms should not be excluded from being able to get tax credits similar to parents who put their children in daycare. This is an issue of basic fairness."

Oklahoma's babies and toddlers may be too young to join in the debate over this issue, but no one has more at stake. It is past time to end subsidize-and-tax policies that push young children out of the loving care of a parent and into the bureaucratic care of a stranger.

Nanny-State Expansion Dies in Senate; Henry Vows to Fight On

Gov. Brad Henry's plan to create a prekinder-garten program for three-year-olds died February 21 in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The legislation, Senate Bill 518, failed to advance on an 8-to-8 vote.

State treasurer Scott Meacham, for whom the job is apparently not a full-time one, took time out of his schedule to argue in favor of Henry's plan for further government involvement in the lives of toddlers. Also in favor of the measure were Democrat senators Johnnie Crutchfield, Tom Adelson, Randy Bass, Kenneth Corn, Mary Easley, Charlie Laster, Susan Paddack, and Nancy Riley.

To their great credit, voting against the plan were Republican senators Mike Johnson, David Myers, Patrick Anderson, Randy Brogdon, Brian Crain, Clark Jolley, Owen Laughlin, and Jonathan Nichols.

"Henry said although the bill is dead under Senate rules, the issue is still alive and he will bring it up in discussions with legislative leaders at every opportunity," the Associated Press reported. "I tell you what, this fight is not over, not by a long shot," the governor said.

The Tulsa World reported that "Henry said he would consider other ways to advance the issue, possibly by executive order."

Which should come as no surprise. As Bryce Christensen pointed out in these pages in September 2004 ('Early Childhood Education in Oklahoma: Cui Bono?'), there are countless politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and political activists in this state with a vested interest - political and/or economic - in the expansion of "early childhood education" (i.e., preschool daycare).

"Despite all of the strengths of at-home mothers as educators, and despite the risks of replacing those mothers with paid surrogates, Oklahomans will wait a long time before they hear advocates of early-childhood education programs acknowledge those strengths or risks," Dr. Christensen wrote. "Why this strange reluctance to address issues truly central to early childhood education? It is hard not to suspect the distorting influence of self-interest. After all, mothers who stay at home with their children do not create new opportunities for educators or bureaucrats or lobbyists. Those opportunities open up only by persuading parents to turn their children over to surrogates while opening up their tax checkbooks to pay other people's salaries."

Bryce Christensen (Ph.D., Marquette University) is an assistant professor of English composition at Southern Utah University. He is the author of Utopia Against the Family (Ignatius, 1990) and editor of several other volumes, including Day Care: Child Psychology and Adult Economics. His latest book is Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (Transaction, 2005). His article "Early Childhood Education in Oklahoma: Cui Bono?" appeared in the September 2004 issue of Perspective.

Bryce Christensen

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