Waiting at the Cradle

“Hey, what about the kids?” That is the slogan for a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign called “Focus Five for Kids,” created to highlight children’s issues during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign. Part of its goal is to persuade Pennsylvania parents to hand over their children to a government-run preschool and day care system.

The special interest group behind the campaign wants “the state to partner with parents” in raising their children, and envisions that this “help in child rearing should eventually be available to all.”

Yesterday the governor’s Early Childhood Care and Education Task Force released its report, and — to no one’s surprise — it urges policy-makers to take the first step toward implementing Focus Five’s vision for Pennsylvania.

More than ever, children need parents who take full responsibility for their children’s well-being. Yet the agenda being pushed by Focus Five and the Task Force will do just the opposite by allowing parents to abdicate, and the government to usurp, the most basic of child-rearing duties.

While some parents may need assistance for a variety of reasons, the truth is that children’s readiness to learn and health have been improving for generations. According to a 2000 U.S. Department of Education study, pre-kindergartners already have the skills necessary for achievement in school. Upon entry into kindergarten, 94 percent of children are proficient at recognizing numbers and shapes and counting to 10; 92 percent are eager to learn; and all but 3 percent are healthy.

Nevertheless, universal preschool advocates want to adopt the European model, under which parent-government partnerships are the rule rather than the exception. However, consider the experiences of France, Britain, Spain and Belgium, where more than 90 percent of 4-year-olds attend government-funded preschool. Yet international tests show that by age 9 — when the benefits of preschool should be apparent — American children regularly outscore their European peers on tests of reading, math and science. It is in the later years — after American students have been subjected to public schools of dubious quality — that European students outperform students in the United States.

But Pennsylvanians do not need to look across the Atlantic to observe the lackluster performance of early childhood education programs. Recent experience within the state suggests that Pennsylvania should not venture into this charted territory.

In 1996, Allegheny County’s Early Childhood Initiative received $2 million in startup money from the Howard Heinz Endowment. The United Way then committed to raising almost $60 million over five years to fund the program. The intent was to create a demonstration project in Pittsburgh that the commonwealth would eventually absorb and expand to the rest of the state.

The ECI promised to serve 7,600 children from birth to age 5 in 80 low-income neighborhoods at a price of $4,000 to $5,000 per child. At its peak in May 2000, only 680 children were enrolled and costs had ballooned to $13,600 per child. In 2002, an independent analysis by the Rand Corp. — which was commissioned by the Heinz Endowments — declared the program a failure.

Pennsylvania can also look to the south for another example of broken promises and lavish costs of early childhood education programs. In 1993, North Carolina unveiled a statewide government-run preschool system called Smart Start. Smart Start originally cost taxpayers only $20 million. But by 2001, the program’s budget ballooned to $220 million for a preschool-age population that is less than half as large as Pennsylvania’s.

If Pennsylvania were to adopt the North Carolina model, it would cost an estimated $581 million in the first year, but would increase to $7.8 billion by 2010 — an amount that is more than a third of the current state General Fund budget. Similarly, a statewide implementation of the Allegheny County ECI model would require an initial $3.4 billion in new taxes.

More troubling than the expense of these programs, however, is that current government-run education systems are hardly models of academic effectiveness or fiscal efficiency.

Pennsylvania’s K-12 government schools received, on average, more than $10,400 per student in the 2001-02 school year — or more than $17.4 billion in total revenue. This is up from $4,500 in 1980 and $8,300 in 2000 (in 2000 dollars). Yet academic outcomes — as measured by SAT scores — remain among the worst in the nation.

In 2000, Pennsylvania SAT scores ranked 46th in the nation, outscoring only four states and the District of Columbia. In 1990, the commonwealth’s students ranked 43rd, and in 1978 they ranked 39th among the states. However, despite spending more and getting less, Pennsylvania taxpayers remain on track to spend more than $17,700 per student by the year 2010.

Consequently, even if a universal preschool system successfully prepared children to enter kindergarten, it is difficult to imagine that the current K-12 public school system will somehow start producing better results.

Pennsylvanians should ask themselves a few questions before embracing government-run preschool: Would you hire a carpenter to remodel the first floor of your home if he was already working on the second and third floors and doing a poor job? Would you expect the results on the second and third floors to improve just because the carpenter was also remodeling the first floor?

The answers should be obvious. Unfortunately, facts and logic rarely thwart the agendas of self-proclaimed child advocates and bureaucrats who are waiting at the cradle to raise our children.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president at The Commonwealth Foundation, an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pa.