After sending out yesterday’s School Choice Weekly, in which I bashed the Indiana House for passing a preschool voucher pilot, I received a few thoughtful comments in my email box.
One was from Brandon Dutcher, senior vice president of the Oklahoma Council for Public Policy. He wanted my thoughts on whether a state that already has universal government preschool (like Oklahoma) would be better off if the preschool funds were vouchers. I said yes.
What’s the difference? Indiana currently has no statewide preschool program. Since research and experience consistently indicates these do not benefit children (sources in SCW), it would be foolish to start a new entitlement you know will be ineffective. But if your state already has an ineffective entitlement, it’s better to make the most of it if “inefficient entitlement” and “more efficient entitlement” are the only available alternatives (i.e., you can’t end the program outright and do something more likely to benefit poor kids). I do not agree with the people who would say “don’t make an entitlement better because then you perpetuate it,” because that only serves to increase the harm to entitlement recipients and taxpayers.
Another comment came from Patrick Herrera, a professor at Chapman University who has written for me on effective reading remediation. He writes:
Those who are creating legislation to expend a great deal of time and expense should consider the purpose for pre-school. There are no statements of purpose. There are no cohesive programs by any of the major publishers that address the existing need. Simply putting children in pre-school does not create a benefit. No mention is made of the curriculum needed, nor the training that teachers need to understand early language acquisition. More important is training in the early acquisition of a second language when the learner has the additional burden of illiteracy.
Patrick brings up a good point, which is that we do know how to close achievement gaps between middle-class and poor children, which is the main goal (though unmet) of preschool programs. There are a number of effective strategies, including assigning lagging children to an excellent teacher four years in a row, and giving those children a content-rich curriculum. The problem is that very few preschool programs, and no large-scale ones, employ such strategies. It would be difficult for them to try just from a personnel point of view, as there are not enough people trained in these strategies to hire for a large program.
But we can also employ these strategies within the existing K-12 system and catch children up once they reach kindergarten, making preschool again an unnecessary tax expenditure.
Further, the reason government subsidizes education at all is to perpetuate a self-governing republic. One can make an argument that K-12 schooling accomplishes this. The arguments for governments subsidizing preschool, at the one end, and college, at the other, are far thinner, in my opinion, because both are more likely to be lifestyle choices than necessary for the basic grounding in academics it is more appropriate for taxpayers to subsidize.
Image by Harris County Public Library.