- The push for universal pre-K highlights the need to ensure all students are prepared academically and emotionally for school.
- Options besides universal pre-K can meet these needs.
- Conservatives should promote options that strengthen the family and encourage parental choice.
Despite a lack of credible evidence that substantiates long-term benefits for pre-k participants, the Left has continued the drumbeat for universal pre-K education and Republican legislators have begun to embrace universal pre-K as well.
So how do conservatives respond to calls from the Left to expand or universalize government pre-K in North Carolina and elsewhere?
First, let’s remember it’s not wise to significantly expand a program when preschool research fails to show either long-term benefits or significant benefits for middle-class children. Policymakers would do well to, as some researchers have suggested, propose a national demonstration project in selected cities and states that would set up a randomized evaluation that would follow participants into fourth or fifth grade. The project should also be set up to evaluate how much middle-class children would benefit relative to other disadvantaged students.
The Left has done a great job of selling the promise of pre-K but a poor job of thinking through the issues of pre-K. It advocates for pre-K using equity and social opportunity to close the achievement gap. That said, the absence of evidence has not stopped the Left from moving forward on proposals to expand and universalize pre-k in North Carolina and elsewhere. In the last two years, about a dozen bills have been introduced to expand or increase funding for pre-K education in North Carolina. However, such activity also mistakenly reflects a mindset that government should be the default solution to all problems.
Let’s remember: The Left loves to give away things to people. It’s how they win loyalty (some call it dependency) and votes. They also know that the best way to sell pre-K now is to universalize it. Doing so means a bigger constituency, and more political power and influence the movement won’t have if pre-K remains the domain of largely poor and disadvantaged children.
So, what can conservatives do to not only influence but also win the fight over pre-K in North Carolina? Three suggestions come to mind. One solution is tactical, the other two are practical.
First, conservatives need to stay focused on the problem. The problem is twofold: (1) many children are not developmentally ready for kindergarten and (2) many parents are not able to afford pre-K programs or services that would help address these concerns. Staying focused on the problem may seem like common sense – it is. But too often, common sense is exactly what’s missing from these debates. Common sense also means knowing what not to do.
Conservatives shouldn’t just dismissively say the problems that pre-K is supposed to address don’t exist. They do. While the Left is good at spending money, conservatives too often are good at denying problems exist. That’s not a viable strategy.
Conservatives lament the ever-lengthening reach of government into our lives and are fearful about extending that reach to include very young children. Fear, however, is not a solution. Conservatives must focus on creative solutions to help disadvantaged kids stay on track and help to narrow the achievement gap. These problems are real. The good news is that there is more than one way to remedy this problem.
Next, conservatives should resist the temptation to scale up or expand existing programs. Pre-K programs simply have too many variables to think that one program is the answer and will work in all places. Forty years of research has made this clear. Rather than expand current programs, conservatives should push for improvements and greater flexibility. Small changes can frequently have a big impact.
One of the major reasons to work against measures to expand is that additional federal and state subsidies for pre-K produce negative impacts and work to limit preschool options for families.
Many families are unable to access pre-K services simply because of cost. Several steps can help to keep down costs in the childcare industry. One of the reasons costs are so high is because of government regulation[i].
NC Pre-K Average Costs and Funding by Setting
|Public School||Private Child Care Center|
|Average Cost per Slot||$9,197||$9,131||$9,088|
|Overall Costs and Funding|
|Staffing Expenses per Slot||$7,082||$6,379||$6,541|
|Operating Costs per Slot||$2,114||$2,752||$2,548|
|Ave. Annual NC Pre-K $/Slot||$3,964||$4,777||$6,257|
|Percent of Costs Covered by NC Pre-K Funding||46%||56%||72%|
Source: Study Costs and Effectiveness Associated with NC Pre-K Slots, Report to the House Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services and Senate Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services and Fiscal Research Division by North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. February 1, 2017
Rolling back preschool regulation offers a better way to improve access without calling for greater government involvement through increased subsidies and accountability. This can be done by removing unnecessary qualifications for certain positions and rolling back staff/ratio rules.
Combine these supply restrictions with the millions in government childcare subsidies that artificially inflate demand. Both factors drive up the cost of pre-K and childcare, costs that fall disproportionately on single moms and those who can least afford it.
Much as the Left argues that it is needed, certification is seldom an important criterion for determining the quality of a preschool teacher. What matters is how the teacher interacts with the child – not content or pedagogy. Requiring certification or a college degree as a requirement for a pre-school teacher only prevents otherwise qualified teachers from being able to get a job.
Third, conservatives need to advocate for more choice in meeting the needs of pre-K parents. State government can encourage this by working with a variety of pre-K providers and ensuring that the playing field is level for all. Pre-k programs may be administered on a variety of sites, in private schools, public schools, Head Start sites, as well as private facilities. Programs located in public facilities in North Carolina frequently enjoy cost and administrative advantages that are not enjoyed by private sites or providers. Such inequities can be corrected through rule changes or statute and should be made as soon as possible to ensure that parents truly have a choice when selecting pre-K programs for their children.
Another way in which conservatives can ensure more choice in pre-K is to advocate for home visits for programs that target at-risk early childhood programs. Such programs ensure that participating families get answers to questions on early learning, child health and other parenting or developmental issues. Targeted home visits ensure students who need services are addressed. Some policy experts believe targeted intervention at an earlier age does more than universal pre-K to address children with the greatest needs. As such, home visits may offer a better payoff than a universal pre-K option. A recent study by the Nurse-Family Partnership (NF Partnership), an organization that provides voluntary home visits to high-risk children with young children, found NF Partnership services produced a net savings of $17,000 per family and improved readiness for school.
Lastly, one other option conservatives might use to help give parents greater choice in pre-K programs is an expanded child tax credit. Such an option allows families to either choose a pre-K program or possibly allow one parent to step away from the workforce and be at home with the child. Other options might allow parents to choose from mixed approaches. The point: an expanded tax credit provides parents the opportunity to choose from or create the option that best fits them and their child’s needs.
The Left has raised the volume on the need for universalizing pre-K programs in North Carolina and nationally. Despite no evidence substantiating the long-term beneficial impacts of pre-K, the quest for universal pre-K continues.
Conservatives must recognize pre-K programs were developed to address real problems. However, the Left only offers a one-size-fits-all solution that too often ignores the differing needs of families. Many pre-K programs prove too expensive or produce limited benefits for children. Rather than just expand access to existing programs, conservatives must use education and tax policies to encourage the development of new smaller private programs that empower parents and provide greater choice.
Conservatives realize that government pre-K school programs are not the best or most effective way to address concerns of academic readiness and other developmental issues. Ensuring a level playing field and expanded choice options provides the best foundation for other viable solutions to emerge. Such solutions are preferable because they not only meet the needs of parents and disadvantaged children, but because they also strengthen the family, the best alternative to any education or social welfare agency ever invented.
[i]Want to make childcare cheaper and more accessible? Deregulate it,Governing Magazine. August 14, 2018. Available online at: http://www.governing.com/gov-institute/voices/col-child-care-cheaper-more-accessible-deregulation.html.