Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Is Nebraska’s push for a comprehensive early-childhood system based in our public schools a positive step forward, particularly for disadvantaged children?

Or is Big Brother sticking its nose into the sandbox in a counter-productive, expensive, damaging way?

Amendment 5 on the Nov. 7 ballot would be a constitutional change that would divert decision-making power over small children’s day-care and preschool choices to state education officials, and away from parents and private providers such as entrepreneurs, churches and for-profit and nonprofit child-care centers.

Besides expanding the public-school mission down to age 0, it would be a step toward universal preschool, in which “free” preschool would be offered for ages 3 and 4 in every public school. It would set in place a system of intake, assessment and record-keeping over each individual Nebraskan from birth through what’s euphemistically being called “Grade 16,” or the end of post-secondary education or training.

Doesn’t Nebraska state government already spend boatloads of taxpayer money each year on early childhood services for the sandbox set, children not yet of school age? Yes, in everything from Head Start and Early Head Start ($34.6 million), to child-care subsidies for the working poor ($31.7 million), to Medicaid ($7.1 million), according to the State Department of Health and Human Services,

Aren’t children who grow up mostly in the care of their own parents or are with an in-home day-care provider who’s usually a friend or relative better off than those who spend a lot of hours each day in structured, out-of-home settings?

On standardized tests, don’t American children beat their age peers in European countries, where government preschool has been enforced for decades, at least until age 10, indicating that our diverse, mostly private-sector early childhood services are superior?

So why do we need to set up state-run day-cares and preschools, with more regulations, standards and assessments, requiring more training and thus higher salaries for staff? Why set ourselves up for enormous, new, ongoing operational expenses, especially when there’s no evidence all this early-childhood infrastructure is going to do anything significant, much less lasting, for our kids?

Well . . . look for the union label. Adding five years to the mission of public schools adds a lot of new jobs and, thus, teachers’ union members.

And look for the influence of rich, left-wing, socialistic, non-government organizations and foundations, for whom the answer to everything is more government control.

And for the support of the Chamber of Commerce, whose leaders only want a better workforce – don’t we all? – but often are blinded by biased, self-serving consultants and “studies” hothoused to twist the facts to make ideas like state-run day-care and preschool look good, instead of what they really are:

Bad. Very bad.

Go Big Ed recommends voting “no” on Amendment 5, and redirecting policymakers and educrats to addressing the obvious needs of K-12 education in this state. Those include the epidemic of reading disability among all demographic groups, the horrendous dropout rates of black and Hispanic boys, the utter lack of state government support for struggling rural schools, the embarrassing absence of school choice, charter schools, tuition tax credits or other innovative policies, the high percentage of college freshmen who require remediation, and many more – instead of getting distracted once again with the “mission creep” that’s destroying academic achievement and opportunity for so many of our children.

Here’s the background that voters need to know:

Amendment 5 would formalize a system of government day-care and preschool run by the state’s public school districts. The goal would be to standardize early-childhood education to help low-income babies, toddlers and preschoolers who are at risk of school underachievement get a better start with early intervention services by trained early childhood educators. Schools have already been in the early childhood education arena for years, with many offering pre-kindergarten programs, but this new shift would increase their mission as defined in the Nebraska constitution to include responsibility for educating children from birth to high-school graduation.

This comprehensive system would be funded with $40 million in state educational funds set aside previously for K-12 learning, plus $20 million in private donations, chiefly from the foundations of the adult children of Warren Buffett of Omaha. The money would be placed in a trust fund expected to produce $3 million a year to run the program, enforce the state’s early childhood standards, and provide continuing education for child-care and preschool workers.

Proponents say the change is necessary because disadvantaged children miss out on a lot of brain development activities that middle- and upper-class children get in their homes, so they need an alternative such as state-run preschool to have the same educational opportunities as their more advantaged peers. Proponents also say the system would produce a “return on investment” of up to $17 per child if a better school start could produce a more productive citizen and save on welfare and criminal justice costs.

However, those claims of the benefits of “free,” government-provided early childhood education are highly controversial, and have been refuted from a number of corners. Opponents of Amendment 5 say the far better public policy would be to insist that schools refocus attention on our existing K-12 system, targeting obvious problems in low-income areas such as rampant reading disability, high absenteeism and minority underrepresentation in upper-level math and science courses. They cite this evidence:

-- Despite billions of dollars, the tiny benefits of the federal preschool program Head Start, the model for a comprehensive, state-run early childhood program, tend to wash out by about third grade. See:

-- Government day-care and preschool programs are notoriously ineffective, create a de facto monopoly for state-run child-care operations by driving private providers out of business, subject young children to inappropriate learning tasks that could result in learning disabilities, promulgate government-sponsored “outcomes” such as accepting homosexuality that are highly objectionable to many parents of young children, are linked to increasing misdiagnosis of “mental illness” in young children and subsequent unnecessary medicating, and produce many other problems:

-- Nebraska is already spending tens of millions of dollars in state and federal taxes on early childhood programs in everything from Head Start to Medicaid to preschool special education, and opponents of Amendment 5 say a new layer of bureaucracy is not needed. For a look at the programs and dollar amounts, see:

-- Other states are disappointed in their stagnant or dropping test scores despite the infusion of huge amounts of cash into their early childhood systems:

-- Despite escalating spending in recent years on government day care and preschool, according to the National Center on Education Statistics, the racial gap in math and reading test scores is actually wider today than in the late 1980s.

-- Brain research has been misquoted and twisted to make it sound as though early intervention before kindergarten is imperative to help an at-risk child able to learn. But neuroscience shows us that the brain doesn’t just “lock down” after age 5, as proponents of government preschool suggest. See the “Brain Research” section in

-- Claims that early childhood education produces a sizeable “return on investment” for every dollar spent have been shown to be hogwash. The cost-benefit analysis behind those claims is self-serving, biased and flawed. It has been traced to one study of 123 retarded youngsters, and has never been replicated on a wide scale. In fact, a California study showed that, far from “saving” taxpayers as many as $12 for every $1 put into government preschool, the proposed program would have cost them 29 cents on the dollar:


-- Finally, contrary to claims that there are massive numbers of disadvantaged children coming to kindergarten not ready to learn, the federal government itself reports that the vast majority of American schoolchildren do exhibit kindergarten readiness, upwards of 90% in most measurements:

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