Opinion

President ignores evidence government preschool hurts children

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Joy Pullmann
Managing Editor, School Reform News
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      Joy Pullmann

      Joy Pullmann (jpullmann@heartland.org) is a research fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News, a national monthly publication. In that capacity, she has interviewed and produced podcasts with many of the leading figures in school reform. She previously was the assistant editor for American Magazine at the American Enterprise Institute.

      She is also the 2013 recipient of a Robert Novak journalism fellowship for in-depth reporting on Common Core national education standards.

      Pullmann has been published by the New York Times, Washington Examiner, The Weekly Standard, Washington Times, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Salt Lake Tribune, Ricochet.com, National Review Online, Real Clear Policy, and various other U.S. newspapers and outlets. Pullmann has written a series of Research & Commentary reports on the Parent Trigger, a new school reform idea sweeping the country, and is coauthor with Joseph L. Bast of “Design Guidelines for Parent Triggers” (Heartland Institute, 2012).

The president is so interested in evidence-based policies, his administration has suppressed and ignored evidence that a new federal preschool program he proposed Tuesday will waste money the country doesn’t have while hurting children.

A month ago, The Huffington Post broke the news that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Department of Health and Human Services have been plotting to get 1.85 million three- and four-year-olds enrolled in government preschool. Currently, the federal Head Start program enrolls about 900,000 small children from poor families, at a cost of $8 billion per year, or $180 billion since the program was conceived in a well-meaning thrust of government paternalism. President Obama wants middle-income kids in government care centers, too, as he announced Tuesday during his State of the Union.

Federal researchers have been studying Head Start for decades, and have never found significant, long-lasting benefits. The research consistently shows that kids who attend Head Start are, four or five years later, no different from their peers who did not attend. In short, the program is like an $8 billion Popsicle binge: it makes grown-ups feel good about giving the kiddos a token while the kids get no nutrition. Seeing these results, HHS suppressed its own research and dumped the latest report full of zeroes on the Friday before Christmas 2012. In January, Congress sent Head Start a $100 million bonus.

While his administration apparently doesn’t want to admit how poorly the feds administer preschool, perhaps one can assume the president does not know Sweden is light years ahead of the U.S. in implementing a literal nanny state and, although Sweden is hailed as one of the most enlightened social welfare states, the results aren’t good. In 2010, Swedish researchers published an alarming study linking the country’s early childhood policies to a litany of evils: anxiety disorders, health problems, social neuroses, drops in learning, discipline problems, segregated labor markets, and more. Sweden is becoming a social wreck, and analyst Jonas Himmelstrand attributes this to its early childcare policies.

Nearly all Swedish parents put kids in government daycare when the wee ones are 1 year to 18 months old, and they continue to preschool and K-12 in the same system. It’s part of a deliberate push for gender equality. According to Swedish researcher Britta Johansson:

“The public offer of full-day child care seems to make many parents lose the grip on their own responsibility. They trust that their children are better fostered by the pre-school and school … [but] pre-school and school cannot fill the gaps caused by lack of parental time with their children and trust in parents’ role.”

I have two toddlers. I understand how stressful small children are, and how easy it is for mothers to believe experts who actually get a morning shower can do it better. But reams of studies show what nature and experience already makes obvious: The best habitat for small children is a home with a married mother and father, where grownups read the babies lots of books and keep them away from computers and TVs. People who ignore this provide cover for parents to handicap their own children.

To truly care for small children in the U.S., we have to undergird families, not separate them. A first — cheap! — real step to improving early learning would be an ad campaign urging parents to interactively read to their kids. Library books are free, and websites abound with reading tutorials. To nurture small people socially and academically, there is no place like home.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.