Governor Rendells Early Childhood Investment Fund

Testimony of Matthew J. Brouillette, President, Commonwealth Foundation

Good afternoon, and thank you Chairman Stairs and members of the Committee for the opportunity to address the topic of early childhood education.

I am not going to use my short time to discuss the merits of early childhood education. I think that, in general, people agree that providing our children with a firm foundation for learning will lead to academic success later in life.

I would argue, however, that those who want to expand the government’s scope, funding, and control of preschool fail to consider many of the associated costs—costs which are expensive both financially and to the well-being of communities.

I also highly question whether the current system—which Gov. Rendell correctly notes is failing too many of our children already—will somehow be able to do a better job by putting them into the system even sooner.

Education advocates of all stripes recognize that the strongest correlation with high academic achievement is parental involvement. That is why, now more than ever, children need parents who take more—not less—responsibility for their educational well-being.

Unfortunately, the current push for government-provided early childhood education would do just the opposite. Instead of encouraging parents to be more involved in their children’s education, by providing “free” preschool, larger numbers of parents will abdicate their most basic child-rearing duties. In addition, government’s assumption of these parental responsibilities will help to further undermine our communities.

How could this be?

First of all, it is true that some parents need assistance with their children for a variety of reasons, but the solution is to empower them to take more responsibility for their children—not to make them more dependent on the government.

Unfortunately, if the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania starts to fund early childhood education because a very small number of parents are not taking proper care of their children, I assure you that we will have more parents—not less—abandoning their parental responsibilities. Throughout history, this has been the natural outcome of nearly every government program. The fact is that government gets more of whatever it subsidizes. In this case, by subsidizing parental abdication of responsibility you will have more parents relinquishing their core duties.

But even if we were willing to accept the potential negative outcome of parents abdicating their responsibilities to the government, what are the chances that preschool and full-day Kindergarten—as Gov. Rendell asserts—will actually begin to solve Pennsylvania’s educational woes?

Not too good. I say this for a few reasons.

First of all, the current government-run education system is hardly a model of academic effectiveness or fiscal efficiency that should be replicated.

In the 2001-02 school year, Pennsylvania’s elementary and secondary school system received, on average, more than $10,400 per student—the third highest per-pupil revenue in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living. This is up from $4,500 in 1980 (in inflation adjusted dollars). Yet academic outcomes—as measured by SAT scores—remain among the worst in the nation.

In 2002, Pennsylvania ranked 46th in the nation, outscoring only four states and the District of Columbia. Even taking into account Pennsylvania’s high participation rate in the college entrance exam, our students’ performance is still last among the top ten participating states. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s ranking has been falling for decades from 39th in 1978, to 43rd in 1990, and 46th today.

Actually, our students’ academic performance on the SAT really should not be surprising. Given their dismal performance on the state’s PSSA tests, our inability to compete with other states in understandable. Gov. Rendell regularly cites our students’ lack of proficiency in basic math, reading, and writing skills.

But should we expect an expansion of government-run preschool and full-day kindergarten to start improving these poor academic results? I doubt it.

In the elementary school years, Pennsylvania students perform relatively better on the PSSA tests than in later years. As you can see on the attached chart showing the 2001-02 PSSA Disaggregated Data, regardless of how you break out the scoring on reading and math, we have an increasing number of children scoring below “Proficient” the longer they stay in school—and these numbers don’t reflect the students who have dropped out along the way. Therefore, the increases in the number of children falling behind in basic academic skills are very likely underrepresented.

The reality is that our children are doing relatively better in the earlier years but fall further behind the longer they stay in school. Consequently, even if a preschool system successfully prepared children to enter kindergarten, it is difficult to imagine that the current public school system will somehow start producing better results in the later years.

In considering early childhood education, policymakers cannot do so without also counting the financial costs. The current system, as noted earlier, is already extremely expensive for Pennsylvania taxpayers. In fact, if Pennsylvania maintains the same funding trend of the past thirty years, we will be spending more than $17,700 per student by the year 2010—and that’s before even one of the Governor’s new programs is implemented.

But what might Pennsylvanians expect if we do adopted government-run preschool?

One program touted by various advocates is Allegheny County’s Early Childhood Initiative. This program began in 1996 as a demonstration project that supporters hoped would eventually be absorbed by government and expanded to the rest of the state.

The Early Childhood Initiative 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.

Although the effectiveness of the project may not be known for years, the costs were staggering. Indeed, a statewide implementation of the Allegheny County Early Childhood Initiative model would require an initial $3.4 billion in new taxes—nowhere near the amount proposed by Gov. Rendell, at least for now.

This expensive price tag would bring our state budget to its knees. However, these costs are only the tip of the iceberg. The financial costs of expanding the government’s monopoly control of education into preschooling will go far beyond just new tax dollars. This expansion will have unintended but severely negative impacts on private-sector education providers.

Earlier today, in Harrisburg, the House Intergovernmental Affairs Committee heard testimony on HB 298, a bill which would finally prohibit government from competing against private businesses. I’m sure you are well aware of local governments establishing enterprises such as fitness centers, golf courses, and movie theaters. These government-run “firms” can effectively drive anyone out of business.

Gov. Rendell’s expansion of government-run preschool will likely have a similarly negative impact.

My wife—who now educates our children at home—used to run preschools. She was the director of both large and small schools—one with 120 children ages 2 ½ through Kindergarten in a stand alone facility, and the other out of our converted basement and backyard for 20 children ages 6 months through preschool.

She estimated that if “free” government-run preschools had been made available, at least half of her children in the large facility would have left and forced her to cut staff. As for the home-based business, my wife said she definitely would have been forced to shut it down.

That’s the power of government monopolies competing against private enterprise; and I predict that these kinds of negative impacts will be commonplace across Pennsylvania with the expansion of government-run preschools.

But who would blame these parents for taking advantage of the opportunity to have someone else pay for their children’s care?

So as this Committee considers the various benefits of preschool and full-day kindergarten, I encourage you to fully assess the costs—both financially and socially.

The lackluster performance and expense of the current public school monopoly should cause policymakers to question whether we should be expanding the government’s scope and control of the earlier years of our children’s education. We already know how expensive and inefficient “free” K-12 schooling is in Pennsylvania. I doubt “free” preschool will somehow be better.

This, of course, is not to say that early childhood education is unimportant. To the contrary, early childhood education is simply too important for us to hand over to the government. We need to empower parents to take more responsibility for educating their children, not less. Unfortunately, I believe that expanding the government’s scope, funding, and control of education will cost us dearly as taxpayers and as a society.

Thank you.

# # #

Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher, is president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.