Obama pitches federal childcare, downplays science, cost

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama is proposing a new federal childcare service for lower-middle class American mothers, despite a comprehensive 2010 government study that showed the $8 billion per year Head Start system for poor kids produced minimal educational benefits.

The proposed childcare program — which may cost $10 billion per year — may boost the president’s broader campaign to win a House majority in the 2014 mid-term election by spurring turnout among suburban Democratic-leaning women and lower-income voters.

Conservatives tout good parenting as a cheaper, non-political and better alternative.

“Politicians like President Obama are eager to replace families with expensive and intrusive government programs, which … have less influence on a child’s well-being than an institution that costs taxpayers nothing: a married mom and dad,” read a Feb. 14 statement from the Family Research Council.

“If President Obama gets away with it, next thing you know, government officials will be swinging by the hospital nursery to pick up our newborns!” the statement continued.

The program for all four year olds is being touted as a responsible, cost-saving measure by White House officials.

“The metrics show that this is the kind of thing you can’t afford not to do,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House’s domestic policy council.

Meanwhile, a decade-long study by the federal government concluded that Head Start provided only “only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade.”

The study, titled “Head Start Impact Study Final Report,” tracked 5,000 white, Hispanic and African-American kids from age three or four until the end of first grade. The children — all of whom were being raised by single parents or by families earning incomes below the poverty level — were compared to others who raised by the their parents or sent to other daycare centers.

The study was released in January 2010, and was conducted by a series of research groups that are frequently hired by the federal government to weight impact of programs and policies. The groups included Westat, the Urban Institute, Abt Associates and Chesapeake Research Associates.

Mainstream advocates highlighted the report’s negative assessment.

“For the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had a beneficial effect on only two outcomes (1.8 percent) out of 112 measures,” read a response by the Heritage Foundation. “For the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had one harmful impact (0.9 percent) and five (4.5 percent) beneficial impacts out of 112 measures,” it added.

Meanwhile, White House are highlighting more favorable results from a few smaller studies.

The HighScope Perry Preschool Study tracked only 123 kids since 1962, and reported significant benefits even as the kids entered their 40s.

The Chicago Child-Parent Center Program followed 1,286 youth from 1980 to 2001. “Relative to the comparison group, preschool participants had a 29 percent higher rate of high school completion, a 33 percent lower rate of juvenile arrest, a 42 percent reduction in arrest for a violent offense, a 41 percent reduction in special education placement, a 40 percent reduction in the rate of grade retention, and a 51 percent reduction in child maltreatment,” read a paper by the study’s authors.

“With an average cost per child of $6,730 (1998 dollars) for 1.5 years of participation, the preschool program generated a total return to society at large of $47,759 per participant,” the authors wrote.

Those studies showed that “when you look at the return [on $1 of investment] to taxpayers, it is in excess of $7,” said Roberto Rodriguez, a special assistant to the president.

“Hope is found in what works,” Obama said during a Feb. 14 speech in Decatur, Georgia. “This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here,” he said.

But he coupled that message with his political pitch to voters eager for a childcare service.

“The size of your paycheck, though, shouldn’t determine your child’s future,” Obama declared. “Let’s fix this, let’s make sure none of our kids start out the race of life already a step behind.”

Obama’s proposal to create a national daycare system was matched his new proposal to create a federal parenting-support service.

The service would be a “evidence-based and voluntary home-visiting program,” in which the federal government would pay nurses, social workers and other professionals to provide advice to parents in their homes, Rodriquez said.

Both plans call for the child-rearing officials to be paid the same rate as teachers.

Munoz declined to say how much the proposed federal childcare program would cost. Cost estimates will be provided in the president’s budget request for 2014, she told reporters during a Feb. 14 press conference.

But, she added, “this is not going to add a nickel to the deficit.”

None of the reporters from the New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Daily News or the Huffington Post asked Munoz or Rodriguez about the government’s Head Start study.

The proposed federal childcare system is unlikely to be approved in Congress, partly because the GOP opposes spending increases Democrats will like request to pay for it without adding to the deficit.

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