President Biden and other proponents of the American Families Act argue that a major expansion of government spending on childcare and preschool will not only help parents but also result in lasting benefits and improved life outcomes for children.
To find out what you know about this important topic, let’s play the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” Can you identify which of these statements is a lie?
A. Participants in the Perry Preschool Project enjoyed significant and lasting improvements in life outcomes.
B. Based on this research, we can expect most American children to experience similar benefits.
C. Head Start, the existing, major government-funded childcare and early education program, has not generated significant or lasting benefits for program participants.
Let’s take these statements one at a time:
A. TRUE. The Perry Preschool Project was conducted between 1962 and 1967 and served “128 three- and four-year-old African-American children living in poverty and assessed to be at high risk of school failure.” The preschool consisted of 2.5 hours of intensive instruction by college-educated teachers with a 6-to-1 class ratio and included weekly 1.5-hour at-home visits where a teacher taught the mother how to be involved in her children’s education. Participants experienced significant learning and other improvements compared to similarly situated peers.
B. FALSE. Results from the Perry Preschool Project are interesting, but they are not at all a good proxy for the expected effects of broad daycare subsidies for all American children or for traditional daycare or preschool programs, which are not nearly as intensive and do not include home-based intervention. In the last 50+ years, the results of the Perry Preschool Project have not been replicated.
C. TRUE. Head Start is a much more relevant proxy to answer the question “what would the likely return be from a massive increase in federal investment in daycare and preschool?” After all, Head Start is the existing major federal government daycare initiative that has been in place for decades and meant to improve child readiness for school while allowing parents to work. But government research into the efficacy of Head Start found essentially no lasting benefits. Any initial improvements disappeared over time.
Moreover, Head Start focused on low-income students who are more likely to experience some benefits from early education programs. Expected results for the general population would be even worse. In fact, some compelling research suggests that children would be worse off from increased use of government-subsidized daycare.
While public officials like President Biden probably have good intentions when they propose to expand the government’s role in childcare and preschool, we must judge policies by their results, not their intentions. Childcare is a challenge for many working families, especially with young children. But rather than a government-centric approach, lawmakers should consider ways to empower parents with the resources and choices they need—and want—in order to do what’s best for their families.