Commentary

Trading Sippy-Cups for School Desks

By Darcy Ann Olsen
August 14, 2001
While the President’s education plan for national testing is steaming its way toward final passage, another campaign of even greater long-term importance is emerging from beneath the political radar screen: The crusade for mandatory public preschool.

At the American Federation of Teachers’ biennial conference this summer, AFT President Sandra Feldman called for a “national commitment” to schooling all 3- and 4-year-olds. At least Feldman was magnanimous enough to suggest that preschool remain voluntary. District of Columbia Councilman Kevin Chavous, on the other hand, sees no problem with forcibly taking young children from their parents. His ominously titled “Compulsory School Attendance Amendment Act” would make school, well, compulsory, for every preschool-aged child in the nation’s capital.

D.C. tots aren’t the only ones trading their sippy-cups for school desks. Four-year-olds in New York and California have already taken seats in public schools. And visionary bureaucrats in Texas and New Jersey have opened public schools to 3-year-olds.

At first glance, the education establishment’s enthusiasm for pre-school seems paradoxical. At an annual cost of $8,000 per child, according to the National Education Association, preschool puts a massive strain on state budgets. Financing two additional grades undermines opportunities to increase salaries and hire new teachers — a grim prospect for a workforce that reports being underpaid and overworked.

But as public schools come under increasing scrutiny for poor student achievement, the leadership has another concern: waning public support. The percentage of Americans who say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools has fallen from 58 percent in 1973 to 49 percent in 1988 to 36 percent in 1999, according to the Gallup Organization. At the same time, support for policies like vouchers and tuition tax credits has blossomed.

Rather than implement real reforms, the establishment denies its shortcomings and points fingers. Feldman says the charge that schools are failing to educate poor children “is a total myth.” As to why the achievement gap persists, she says, “One of the main answers can be found in the 68 percent of a child’s waking hours outside of school versus the 32 percent spent in school.” To drive the point home, Feldman also proposes extended-day and extended-year schooling along with new summer programs. Why not just cut out the family altogether and send newborns to boarding school?

Private schools aren’t making excuses; they’re getting the job done. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, mean reading scores for 4th grade black and Hispanic students in private schools are 20 points higher than their respective national means, and the achievement gap between groups is less pronounced. If black students across the nation had the same scores as black students in private schools, the national black/white achievement gap would shrink from 33 points to 13 points; for Hispanics, the disparity would move from 29 points to 9. Even controlling for income levels, the private school advantage holds.

An estimated 60 percent of children already attend preschool without being dragged there by the state. And there’s no evidence that children who don’t attend are shortchanged. Education Department data show the majority of youngsters at the onset of kindergarten have the social and academic skills that are the foundation for school achievement: 94 percent recognize numbers and shapes and can count to ten; 92 percent are eager to learn; and all but 3 percent are in good health.

Despite that success, the establishment insists on copying Europe’s state-run model. In France and Spain, more than 90 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds attend state preschools, yet on international reading tests, U.S. 4th graders significantly outscore their counterparts in these and most other European countries. But although U.S. students sprint ahead during the elementary years, they slow down with each passing year. By 12th grade, they are at best “D” students on the international scale. Putting kids two years earlier into the distressed public system is not going to solve that problem.

Self-professed children’s advocates have been slow to discover what parents seem to know instinctively: Every child is unique and no one setting suits all children. Not surprisingly, the agenda for universal preschool has little parental support. According to the non-partisan organization Public Agenda, while 68 percent of self-identified “children’s advocates” say government policy should move toward a universal, national child care system, only 27 percent of parents share that vision.

The good news is that the establishment is swimming against a powerful tide: a grass-roots movement sweeping across the states, offering open-enrollment, charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, and multi-million-dollar private scholarship funds. Parents are loosening the government’s grip on education, even as the establishment seeks to extend that hold to preschoolers. Parents may not be professional advocates, but maybe — just maybe — they know what’s best for their kids.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute.