Parents know best when it comes to their kids’ education. But as we’ve seen time and again this past year, the government disagrees. And now federal legislators have come up with yet another scheme to get parents out of the way: universal preschool.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed the largest expansion of the public education system in decades. In the so-called “Build Back Better” plan, the federal government will fund pre-kindergarten programs nationwide. While touted as a way to improve early education access for low-income and otherwise disadvantaged families, the result will be more children in government-run schools at an even earlier age than they are now.
For families who choose to send their kids to preschool, they currently have a plethora of programs to choose from: non-profit preschools, ones run by faith-based groups, schools run by private for-profit organizations, and public preschools via the Head Start program.
Of the purported $3.5 trillion of the bill’s total cost, the plan passed by the House would use $200 billion of that to provide for publicly funded, tuition-free pre-K for all children 3–4 years old, nationwide. Pre-K programs must be approved and government regulated in order to receive these funds. Which means that, rather than invest in the options currently available via grants, tax credits, or other policy options, this funding will be funneled into the public school system, since very few of the non-public options meet the requirements for federal funding. Instead of allowing for alternative options to flourish, this proposal will limit parents’ choices and pull more kids into the one-size-fits-all public system.
President Biden has said that these 3- and 4-year-olds who will “benefit” from universal pre-K will be a part of the “best-educated generation” in American history. While these kids may spend more time in school than others before them, will that mean they will be better off for it?
The best-educated generation?
A look at already-existing federally funded preschools suggests that the answer to that is “no.”
The government already funds pre-K through the Head Start Program for low-income families at the tune of $9.8 billion a year. In 2010, Congress commissioned the Department of Health and Human Services to study the effectiveness of Head Start.
The result? The department concluded that the program yielded positive initial effects, but “the advantages children gained during their time in Head Start and up to age 4 yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade . . .” After 3rd grade, there were no perceived benefits for students who had attended Head Start versus those who did not.
What does broader research on very early education say?
Will these 3- and 4-year-olds be better off with more time spent away from their parents, more time spent learning government-approved curriculum, and more learning on a rigid bureaucrat-determined timetable?
Existing research shows that young kids benefit from a flexible learning environment where they can learn at their own pace, not a highly structured classroom where all students are expected to develop at the same rate.
A 2018 Harvard study suggested that, instead of giving children a head start, starting kindergarten at a younger age could be a risk factor for ADHD. In contrast, a 2015 Stanford study showed that delaying kindergarten a year could significantly help children self-regulate their attention. And numerous studies document the important role that free playtime serves to help children develop lifelong emotional and mental skills—time that often ends up being in short supply in a structured preschool or kindergarten environment.
How would this work—and would it affect compulsory education?
Will extending government-run education to preschoolers fix the already-existing issues with the public education system? It’s common sense that if the foundation of a house is sinking or cracked, you don’t then add on another story before fixing the problem. In this case, the failing public education system is the house, yet the government wants to expand its responsibility by adding on two more years of early education.
And if preschool is universally available to all 3- and 4-year-olds (along with federal funding for each child), how enticing will it be for states to lower their current compulsory school attendance laws to an even younger age? Despite the research that shows kids are not necessarily well-served by early education, there are currently nine states that require children to begin formal education at 5 years old, with more states pushing for similar requirements each year.
Listen to parents
Is federally funded universal pre-K even a proposal that American families want? During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents have seen just how broken and ineffective the public education system is—how poorly it is serving their kids. Moms and dads have made their dissatisfaction clear at school board meetings across the country and with the latest election results in Virginia. Parents want to provide their kids with the best education possible, whether that’s homeschooling, private school, or public option that actually does its job.
Parents want more control of their children’s education, not less. They want the ability to choose the program best suited to their families’ needs. Universal preschool will restrict that freedom by limiting the existing options available and expanding only the public programs.
Neither research nor common sense supports federally funded universal pre-K, yet the current administration is forging ahead with the proposal anyway. Because at the end of the day, this isn’t about what is best for kids. It’s about what Secretary of Education Cordona meant when he said that “parents are not the primary stakeholders,” or when VA gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe said that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.” The powers that be think that parents are an impediment to the proper upbringing of children, and those parents needs to be removed from the equation as early as possible.
While we at HSLDA believe that homeschooling is the educational option that can best help kids thrive, we also believe that parents should have the freedom to choose and direct their kids’ education. It is the job of legislators to provide protect that freedom, not limit it. When parents are free to recognize and nurture their children’s unique strengths and abilities with a personalized learning path , those children will have the greatest ability to flourish.