June 11 2009

Policy Brief #22: Keep Uncle Sam Away from Toddlers:The Case Against Government Funding for Preschool

Carrie L. Lukas

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Executive Summary

The President has suggested that greater federal government support for early childhood education is an important component of improving educational opportunities in the United States and would be an investment in our human capital.  Yet there is little evidence to support the case for greater federal involvement in preschool.

While policymakers assume that an investment in public preschool will lead to improved student outcomes, the research on the effects of preschool is far from conclusive.  Some studies have linked preschool attendance with short-term gains in student test scores and other education-related outcomes, but those improvements fade over time.  Additionally, most studies that have found significant gains associated with preschool have focused on lower-income or at-risk student populations.  There is no reason to think that such gains would also occur among the general student population, which is the target of most "universal" preschool proposals.  Still, other studies have linked increased time in preschool with negative social behavior, which would suggest that encouraging greater use of preschool could contribute to as many problems as it solves.

Depending on how programs are structured, government preschool programs could encourage parents to switch from private preschool providers to subsidized public programs.  The often dismal record of our public school system in providing children with a quality education in kindergarten through 12th grade should caution policymakers about the potential quality of public programs for three- and four-year-olds.

It's also worth noting that there is nothing in the Constitution that would suggest that providing early educational opportunities is a proper use of federal power.  The care and education of children, particularly children as young as three and four, should the responsibility of parents, not Uncle Sam. 

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