If money were no object, President Barack Obama’s plan for expanding early education would get an A-plus.
The president has proposed taxpayer-funded preschool for “every child in America” — a zero-to-five education system that “begins at birth.”
That’s thinking big.
If only money were no object.
Several runs have already been made at early education, and the results have been mixed.
Most feel the 47-year-old Head Start program for low-income preschoolers has been a disappointment. The Health and Human Services department released a report concluding that early gains disappeared by third grade.
Researchers from both the Brookings Institute and the Heritage Foundation agree. They found early intervention had no staying power. The gains simply “faded away.”
Proponents disagree. The New York Times reported a study by Cal-Berkeley professor David Kirp showing lasting improvements in inner-city children exposed to early education. His test tube was Union City, N.J., where many of the students were from immigrant families where only Spanish was spoken.
Kirp reports prekindergarten schooling of 3- and 4-year-olds led to big jumps in achievement scores, high school graduation rates and college enrollment.
An old friend who teaches in inner-city schools in Patterson, N.J., agrees. Skeptical of just throwing money at the problem, he claims the answer is early engagement — starting at age four — where, he says, the returns are real and measurable.
Who’s right? Success claims are largely anecdotal, whereas opponents have the benefit of metrics, most of which are negative. But the fact is, the jury is still out.
The idea of starting education at age four is not new. According to the Wall Street Journal, some 28 percent of American 4-year-olds are already enrolled in state-funded schools and many more in private programs.
The Obama proposal would expand this to all 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families.
While skeptics applaud the intent, they say the plan is simply not affordable. Head Start carries an annual price tag of $7.6 billion, and most, including the president, agree it has not delivered.
How would the Obama plan differ? Special training would be provided for preschool teachers, and rigorous learning standards would be imposed.
The cost? No specifics yet. Only that the program would not add to our $16.5 trillion debt. But we’ve heard that song before.
The Center for American Progress estimates an annual $10,000-per-child expenditure would add up to $100 billion over 10 years. That’s probably low. Past programs in Michigan and North Carolina have run at least $16,000 per child annually.
Whatever the number, it would be added to the nearly $40 billion per year the Wall Street Journal says we already spend on early education.
To help cover costs, the Obama plan calls for matching state funds. Good luck with that. Most states, Florida included, are struggling to pay for existing programs, let alone take on new ones. (Dealing with Medicaid increases is the latest challenge.)
So how will this play out?
Best guess is a scaled-back federal program — a pilot — with checkpoints and accountability. That should get bipartisan support. If lasting benefits can be proven, then a broader “investment” might be justified.
Ah, if only money were no object.