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Among the many policy initiatives discussed in President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night was a proposal to provide pre-kindergarten education for 4-year olds in all fifty states, an expansion of the Head Start program first started in 1965. While Obama claims that this initiative, and indeed all proposals outlined in his speech, will not expand the federal budget deficit, it’s difficult to imagine how universal preschool provision by the state could be accomplished without a great deal of additional spending. But supposing we take the president at his word, there is still little reason to believe that such a program would be either necessary or useful.
Previous studies on the effectiveness of the Head Start program have employed a flawed counterfactual, comparing Head Start students to students with no education status at all, instead of to the alternative educational strategies actually available to and used by parents. In fact, most working mothers already have regular access to child care for their preschoolers even without the Head Start program, calling the necessity for such a program into question.
Additionally, the Government Accountability Office has found significant evidence for fraud within the program and that families are routinely encouraged to collect benefits for which they do not qualify. Such findings lead us to question whether the federal government is spending more than $8 billion a year on a program that is neither needed nor effective.
The president’s proposal to expand access to preschools is predicated on the assumption that pre-kindergarten education is actually beneficial to children. In fact, there is considerable doubt as to whether this is so, and whether preschools actually confer any long term benefits to students. At an age when they are meant to be exploring and absorbing their surroundings, is it really wise to remove children from their parents and impose a structured, one size fits all educational system on them?
There is relatively little that can be formally taught to a child as young as four, and preschool activities typically focus on basic concepts like shapes, colors, letters and numbers. The idea that a child who does not learn the difference between a circle and a triangle at age four, but is instead left to discover it in his own time, will somehow be mentally crippled at later ages in patently ridiculous.
Several recent studies have found little in the way of evidence that preschool is useful to students, and in fact it may even hurt, with directed teaching impairing children’s abilities to find answers on their own and exercise creative solutions to problems. At the same time, the methodology and unbiased nature of previous studies linking preschool education to positive outcomes have been called into question, as many of these studies were performed by organizations with a vested interest in the outcome.
The very fact that we as a nation have become increasingly obsessed with early childhood education while continuing to fall behind the rest of the world in outcomes should be enough to show that these programs are fundamentally wrongheaded, and that rather than throwing good money after bad we should rethink our entire approach.
Obama’s desire to expand the Head Start program is merely another reflection of his philosophy that more government is the solution to every conceivable problem, and that if a program fails it is only due to insufficient funds. Rather than pushing for more expensive, top-down education programs that don’t work, we should focus on empowering parents by supporting school choice and homeschooling. Every child is different, and so decisions about education are best made at the individual level, not handed down from an isolated, out of touch Washington bureaucracy.