Rumblings are once again underway indicating movement on President Obama’s State of the Union proposal to “work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” and to drive forward his agenda to create a “cradle to career” government education system.
Increased spending of Americans’ tax dollars for universal child care means more government involvement in determining which facilities should receive funds. As prospects for the President’s plan to create a federal scorecard to evaluate colleges indicate, that will be, at the very least, a problematic venture. A new study published by the journal Science found that pre-kindergarten classes that received the highest quality scores in ratings systems used by most of the states were no better in preparing children for school than were classes with lower ratings.
As an indicator of what kind of results might be expected from universal day care, a trial case in Oklahoma—one of the two states that the President applauded for providing taxpayer-funded preschool for all four-year-olds—is illustrative. Oklahoma has not shown substantial progress in students’ academic achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, fourth-grade reading test scores in the Sooner State have declined since 1998, when the state first implemented universal preschool.
When a scientifically rigorous evaluation of the federal government’s Head Start preschool program was published in December 2012, results showed that, overall, the program largely failed to improve the cognitive, socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes of children who participated in the program. Since 1965, taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on Head Start.
Aside from problems of quality and government ranking day care facilities, parents and other taxpayers should consider the research on the impact of non-maternal care on children’s well-being.
Numerous academic studies suggest that more hours spent in day care in a child’s earliest years is associated with lower social competence and negative behavioral outcomes, and that these persist through childhood and adolescence. Greater amounts of time spent in non-maternal care and younger age of entry into day care were associated with a greater likelihood of socio-emotional problems and lower cognitive skills. The cumulative effect of extensive day care was associated with lower academic achievement and poorer emotional health. As one comprehensive study that tracked 1,300 children from infancy through age 15 found, the quality of day care was significantly less important regarding social and emotional outcomes than the number of hours spent in day care. The negative effects of day care were more persistent for children who spent long hours in center-care settings.
A Pew Research Center survey found that 80 percent of working mothers said that they would have preferred to stay at home when their children were young. Rather than increasing government involvement in preschool care—at the expense of taxpayers like these working moms—public policy should focus on initiatives to promote marriage, strengthen families, and optimize opportunities for parents to care for their own children.