Gail Collins believes it’s long past time for government to do more to subsidize preschool, as President Obama suggested during the State of the Union.  Her big regret is that this wasn’t accomplished in the early 1970s, when it was being advanced by Walter Mondale.   As Collins writes about this topic, she refers to these government proposals as part of the “drive to make quality preschool education available to every family in the United States.” Because it’s just that easy, right?

Where does Collins—and Obama for that matter—get the child-like faith that somehow getting the federal government more involved in the preschool business will actually lead to better educational options and outcomes for American children?

Certainly, it cannot be from our existing K-12 public education system.  Funding has soared for our country’s K-12 schools, and the federal government’s involvement in setting standards and providing support for other services has grown in tandem. Meanwhile, standardized test scores and graduation rates remain stuck at mediocre levels nationally, and at worse than abysmal for many urban districts.

Collins also doesn’t mention that for decades the federal government has been in the business of subsidizing preschool for low-income families—presumably the families Collins is most concerned about since she casts federally-supported preschool as the panacea for solving the problem of upward mobility—through Head Start.  It’s no wonder why she avoids the Head Start topic.  Government studies show that, in spite of billions of taxpayer dollars and the creation of another robust government bureaucracy, Head Start has essentially no lasting benefits for those who enroll.

In fact, as I write about here, most studies show that government’s efforts to encourage preschool don’t live up to their promise in terms of preparing students for school.

Worse than all this, there is reason to believe that more government involvement in preschool would actually make things worse, and end up meaning families have fewer, not more, quality preschool options.

Government rules would undoubtedly make some of the existing programs out-of-compliance (especially since so many preschools are associated with religious institutions).  Subsidies for some government-approved schools would hurt those that don’t qualify for the program; some parents would leave those schools for lower quality, subsidized ones, which may mean that the best programs would end up out of business.

Collins also forgets that preschool isn’t necessarily better for kids.  Often, more time with parents is best for preschool age children.  And subsidies for preschool make it harder for families to justify making the sacrifice to keep kids at home.

I know this from experience.  I lived in one of those celebrated European cities, Vienna, Austria, for two years, during which time they created a city-wide subsidy for  “preschools” (which were essentially daycare centers:  They accepted kids younger than one and did nothing that the U.S. would consider “educational;” it was all play and crafts).  When I no longer had to pay almost anything for my 4-year-old daughter, I signed her up for a longer day to make it easier on me.  I also enrolled my 2-year-old for the mornings.  I justified this extended time to myself—I had another baby at home, and the girls were learning to speak German while at school—but certainly the subsidy made it so my children had less parent-care and more daycare.  From the evidence I’ve seen, that’s really not a good thing, and certainly isn’t the direction our national policies should push us.

I’d love to see more research into why preschools and daycare in the United States are so expensive.  I have a hunch: Government regulations and insurance costs due to the out-of-control litigation culture in the United States make running any child care facility needlessly difficult and costly.  Government should do more to make quality options affordable by eliminating barriers to the creation of new, innovative options, but not by taking money from taxpayers for a new entitlement we can’t afford, and not by doubling down on our already overburdened, under-performing public education system.

Americans should be wary of promises that this time—in spite of all the other failures—government will get it right, and its forays into education will lead to “high quality education for everyone.”   I like it when my children create vivid, magical fantasy worlds; not so much when it’s our nation’s policymakers.