Thursday, March 24, 2005


Nowhere in our culture is the push toward socialistic government control over personal lives more apparent than in the sandbox and animal crackers set: our preschool children.

Nebraska is one of many states whose educrats are trying to take the early childhood education reins, and extend government control literally from the cradle to what they euphemistically call “Grade 16,” and we used to call the senior year in college.

It used to be that government on all levels kept its hands off kids ‘til they hit school. But starting with President Johnson’s anti-poverty push in the 1960s, with Head Start, government infrastructure and regulatory influence from birth through age 5 has mushroomed into a monolith.

Head Start has operated for nearly 40 years, enrolling 22 million children at a cost of more than $50 billion.

Cost of Head Start in Nebraska in 2004 was $35.7 million, for 5,080 children. That’s $7,027 per child.

For the lowdown on its ineffectiveness, search “Head Start” on
www.cato.org and see articles by Darcy Ann Olsen, director of education and child policy for the Cato Institute. Housed within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start is pitched to taxpayers as a way to get poor kids on a level playing field, educationally, with middle-class peers. But, as test scores show nationwide, it’s a failure.

Nationally, Head Start enrolled 905,851 children at a cost of nearly $6.8 billion last fiscal year. Because of a General Accounting Office report that indicated that 76% of the Head Starts had fiscal mismanagement issues, and a U.S. Health and Human Services finding that the net educational gain to Head Start children in the long run was a big, fat zero, the Bush Administration has been trying to dismantle Head Start.

Despite heavy opposition from left-wing organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund, the Bush team seeks to block-grant the money to the 50 states to be administered more locally. It seeks a clearer focus on reading readiness, and not so much of the “save the rainforest,” “save the gays,” “bash the military” and “anybody who has any money is your enemy” indoctrination.

As more and more units of educational governance in Nebraska, including school districts like the Omaha Public Schools, become Head Start grantees, it shivers me timbers to think what a waste of tax dollars this is. Everybody’s for trying to help disadvantaged kids. But there’s a lot in it for the public school districts – more money and power, inflated enrollment statistics since they can fold pre-k numbers in with the rest – so that the conflict of interest is apparent. They’ll do it for the money, whether it works or not. And who’ll get hurt when 10 years down the road they find out it doesn’t work? The disadvantaged kids, of course.

The Cato Institute’s Ms. Olsen has it pegged: we know that free preschool for disadvantaged kids is a waste of money because of the many complex factors in disadvantaged children’s lives that put them at risk of school failure. Ms. Olsen says the only way to put all kids on equal footing in school is to use genetic engineering, surrogate parenting, and a nationwide network of homes away from home. But shhhh: maybe that’s what Hillary, Algore & Co. will try next.

Now, on the state level, government preschool is more modest in scale, but is growing rapidly. State-run preschools now cost taxpayers $2 billion nationwide, and counting. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University (
www.nieer.org/yearbook), about 10% of the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds are in state-run preschool programs.

Nebraska has some 28 state grants to preschool programs going. For a list, see
www.nde.state.ne.us/ECH/HeadStart/nestats.html) According to the NIEER, Nebraska’s system is ranked by access and resources to about where its population base suggests it should be; we are ranked quite high, sixth, in the quality of our standards, which is good.

The infrastructure for both state and federal preschools is already big, and growing. See the prek web pages on the State Education Department site,
www.nde.state.ne.us There’s a Nebraska Head Start Collaboration Office, a state association and a national organization (www.nhsa.org) with a training conference coming up in Orlando, Fla.

But is all of this wise public policy? With Head Start, we already know that even the most expensive preschool program doesn’t help disadvantaged kids in the long run. Take a look at the demographics gaps in test scores in later grade school and high school, and you can see that. The Head Start kids are illiterate, drop out and land in jail at the same rate as disadvantaged kids who didn’t go to Head Start. The more we spend on government preschool for poor kids, the poorer they do in school.

So the Bush Administration would take the money now being thrown down a federal rathole into Head Start, and throw it down 50 state ratholes, with the push toward more state-run preschools.

That’d be like the Cat in the Hat – only instead of pink spots, it’d be taking the bad idea of government preschool, and spreading it and spreading it and spreading it.

So here’s a better way:

Survey the top 10% of this spring’s Nebraska high school graduates, public, private and homeschool. Find out what their preschooling was like.

How many hours a week did they go? Did it take place in a Head Start? A government-subsidized preschool? A private day-care center? A private preschool? A church-based preschool? Or mostly at home?

My gut instinct tells me the last two choices will be the prevalent ones because that’s where the kids feel the most loved – the most like precious children, and the least like “clients” that the education bureaucracy gets paid to enroll.

I bet close to 0% of the Top Ten went to Head Starts or public preschools of any kind.

So is that really where we want to invest? Noooooo.

Best answer: better parenting education for low-income families so that they’ll do a better job at the only preschool education practice that really works – reading aloud to kids – and access the already-generous health care and social services available to them now, outside of Head Start and state-run preschools, which should be minimized, not promoted.

Most importantly, we need significant tax cuts so that struggling parents can afford to give their kids the best head start possible. And that takes place in the private sector – mostly, in their very own homes.

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