November 9, 2014
We Need the Right Early Childhood Education Programs
Faithful readers of this column will recall that I believe that robust public early childhood education offers significant benefits to taxpayers. My beliefs were formed the old fashioned way. I critically read nearly all the serious research on the matter and contributed some analysis myself. My conclusions were that the benefits are broad, enduring and important.
Some of my work nearly a decade ago even helped launch a statewide initiative in another state, and here in Indiana I have urged reluctant policymakers to consider early childhood education investment as a critical part of local economic development. This is an issue that all Hoosiers should think about, but this column is not about early childhood education. It is about the appropriate role of federal, state and local government.
Given my understanding of and strong support for early childhood education programs, you might suppose I think Governor Pence mistaken in his decision to forego some $85 million in federal support for early childhood education. I do not. Accepting this money would have been easy, popular and wrong. Here is why.
Indiana state and local government pays for education. This shifts resources from rich to poor communities and comprises well over $6 billion per year in state spending alone, or more than $5,000 per student. But quite incredibly, last year Hoosier taxpayers sent more than $1 billion to the U.S. Department of Education in the form of federal income and corporate taxes. That is about one-sixth our entire state budget being spent on public education in Indiana.
The federal Department of Education has no actual mission to educate anyone. They simply gather data and filter these dollars through a large bureaucracy and send some back to us. The returning dollars come with enormous strings attached (as anyone who has ever received a federal grant can attest). So, the federal early childhood education dollars are as likely to hamstring innovation and effective programs as promote them. Indiana is wise to view them with great caution. But that is only half the issue.
The difficult and politically unpleasant truth about early childhood education is that it largely works by intervening when families have failed. Only a small share of kids, maybe one in five, really needs this intervention, and knowing where and how to do this is part of Indiana’s current pilot programs. The real benefits aren’t academic but behavioral, and a large federal program is almost certain to miss the mark. As long as we have failing families, there will be a role for early childhood education, but not just any program.
Federal interventions into early childhood education, including the unbelievably costly Head Start Program demonstrate no net benefits. This is because the federal government cannot effectively structure rules about intervening in families. This is quite simply not what any government does well. We must depend on churches and community groups.
It sure wasn’t popular and might well have been bad politics, but Mr. Pence made the right call with federal dollars for early childhood education.
About the Author
Educational Attainment, the 21st Century Fund and the Future of SchoolingIndiana ranks 42nd in educational attainment.
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