| November 11, 2013

‘Why does Oklahoma still have a universal pre-kindergarten program?’

That’s the question Jennifer Doverspike asks in an excellent new article over at The Federalist (“The False Promise of Universal Pre-kindergarten”).

Doverspike is the founder and editor of Six Forty Nine: Resource-Driven Parenting and the co-founder of Midtown Tulsa Moms. A former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency with expertise in counterterrorism and al-Qaida, she is a thorough researcher. When the evidence points to benefits of early education, she acknowledges those benefits. But she has no patience for the inflated claims of Barack Obama and others about the effects of universal pre-kindergarten. “Preschool for disadvantaged children may have its benefits,” Doverspike writes, “but that does not augur for a state-run program that catches all children.”

[I]f you are an educated parent who spends time talking and learning with your children, your child probably will not gain any extra educational benefit from preschool. Oklahoma makes the classic mistake of assuming the government can do a better job of providing for our children than parents. … An engaged parent can provide “education” necessary for a young child by letting him or her play — a solution far better than formal education which can hinder a child’s learning skills or negatively impact more rambunctious children, especially boys.

As author Kay Hymowitz wrote over at TIME last month, what the research really suggests “is that it’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there.”

There’s also the issue of cost. Public education always wants more money, but policymakers also have to fix roads and bridges, fund welfare programs, and lock up bad guys. Describing the state-budget realities at 23rd and Lincoln, Oklahoma’s secretary of education and workforce development, Robert Sommers, summed it up nicely: “Resources are limited and competition is fierce.”

Doverspike understands this, and says “it’s laughable that the same people who lament that ‘49th in school spending is not OK’ aren’t noticing the pre-kindergarten parasite stretching the education budget even further.”

After reviewing the evidence, she concludes that Oklahoma’s “state-run pre-kindergarten is not doing its job. After 15 years, it may be time to try something different.”

Parental Choice

Doverspike offers several worthy policy alternatives, the most important of which (in my view) involve parental choice. Specifically, she mentions vouchers, education accounts, and the “Etsy Earner” agenda for education and childcare. As Ben Domenech explains, Etsy Earners are “women who’ve started home businesses or found contracting work to make ends meet and to stay engaged in their careers in the long term, recognizing they'll have to go back to full-time work as soon as they are able.”

School choice is the great white hope on the right, but they should expand their normal conversation about it to include the parent trigger and education savings accounts which can be used toward Pre-K or toward child care. The current deductibility limit for child care expenses comes nowhere near the annual cost for most families, which particularly hurts single moms, who have no option but to work and put their kids in homecare or daycare. It also creates a huge incentive to dump kids into Head Start, a failed program which drives up costs for every other type of child care. Either make every penny of childcare expenses deductible, or create a tax-free childcare/education savings account, perhaps framed more broadly as Childrearing Accounts. The right should look to the example of Arizona’s Empowerment Savings Account program ...

Fortunately, some Oklahoma policymakers are beginning to do just that. For even though universal pre-kindergarten is “every progressive’s fondest dream,” as Red Jahncke wrote last month in The Wall Street Journal (“The ‘Universal Pre-K’ Fallacy”), it is the wrong vision for one of the most conservative states in the nation. “Oklahoma has the ability to establish itself as a beacon of federalism and limited government,” Doverspike says. “It has already gained national attention for its states’-rights-crusading attorney general. The state legislature is working on tax reform, judicial selection, workers’ compensation reform and tort reform. … Despite those gains, Oklahoma can’t claim the mantle of limited government while the universal pre-kindergarten stands.”

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