Commentary

Does More Schooling Equal Better Results?

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
May 17, 2002

Is compulsory education really necessary for D.C. preschool children? Raising that point can get you labeled “anti-education.” But now is the time to ask such a question because D.C. city councilman Kevin Chavous wants the District to lower the compulsory school attendance age from 5 to 3. Yet as evidence shows, putting kids in school at a very early age does not help them educationally in the long run — -it only keeps the education-machinery running longer.

On April 30 I stopped by the Adams Elementary School on 19th Street in northwest Washington, D.C., to hear from Chavous about the proposal. Instead, because Chavous canceled the meeting, I got an earful from about 15 opponents of the measure. Mistaking me for a Chavous supporter, apparently because they hadn’t seen me at previous town hall meetings, the opponents of the mandatory preschool amendment fired questions at me: Do you support forcing infants into school? Don’t you know Chavous is just doing this because he wants to be mayor? Do you think this city has the capacity to carry out this program? Why are you here?

I explained to them that I was there to hear from both sides. The ladies, who it turns out are studying the child development field, agreed with me that the preschool program would extend the schooling process without improving educational performance.

The D.C. public school system is already a well-financed failure and the proposal by Chavous for a pilot program costing $50 million the first year and $30 million annually won’t change that. To put that $30 million program into perspective, consider this: In 2000, including federal funds, D.C. spent more than $850 million on education. Last year the school system ran up a deficit of $62 million, twice the amount that would be spent on the preschool program. In March, the D.C. Board of Education announced that it was freezing spending because the system was overspending.

What is it that the first $850 million couldn’t do that the next $30 million will? If targeting money like that will have an impact, then why not target that $30 million at students already in the system? Are Chavous and others conceding that they can’t do much about K-12, so they’ll focus their energies elsewhere? If we’ve got a hole in the roof, then why are we trying to build extra rooms?

Chavous says he wants the program to get kids ready for kindergarten. The reality is that D.C. school kids show up for kindergarten ready and able to learn, but are failed by the public school system. On the Stanford 9, an achievement test given every spring, the percentage of D.C. kids reading at a Below Basic level greatly increases the longer children are in D.C.’s public schools. On the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, given until the mid-1990s in the District, D.C. public school students in grades 3 and 6 often performed above the national norm in math and language, above the national norm in science, and slightly below the national norm in reading. But by 10th and 11th grade, they were well below the norm.

Not only is the system failing educationally, the system itself is literally in a shambles. According to a July 2, 2000, Washington Post article, “The District of Columbia’s $1 billion campaign to rebuild its crumbling schools is in turmoil. Window replacements, bathroom renovations, and whole-school modernizations are behind schedule.” In an understatement, then schools’ chief facilities officer Kifah W. Jayyousi wrote in a June 2000 memo, “The program management is dysfunctional. Projects are simply dropping off or being delayed indefinitely [w]hile the whole program continues to slip on a weekly basis.” According to schools superintendent Paul Vance, Jayyousi was relieved of his duties because he had “put the health and safety of children ‘at risk’ and failed to properly manage his department.” A report released last month by the General Accounting Office confirmed that the modernization is still well behind schedule and already $170 million over budget.

Now Chavous wants to force 10,000 toddlers to attend schools that even the school board president says are “decrepit,” further burdening an already overwhelmed system. Chavous says, “It would force the school system to take charge and responsibility for every 3- and 4-year-old in the city to make sure they are prepared for kindergarten.”

The system hasn’t been able to take charge and responsibility for students already in the system, so it is doubtful that an extra two years will help those 10,000 toddlers. The announcement by Chavous last June came a bit after news reports that D.C. middle school students had been strip-searched at jails. Do we really want 3-year-olds in a system like that?

That question brings us back to the original question: Is compulsory education necessary for D.C. preschool children? Forcing children into a failing system even earlier reminds me of a story the late Albert Shanker, the long-time union leader, used to tell. Shanker would say that if a manufacturing plant realized that 25 percent of its products were falling off at the end of a conveyer belt, management at the plant wouldn’t try to speed up the line. Instead, it would try to fix the problem.

In education, Shanker said, people look for ways to extend a process that continues to produce defective results. That’s what the proposed amendment to the compulsory education law would do: Extend the schooling process without improving educational performance.

Casey Lartigue is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.