If Al Gore jumped off a bridge, would George W. Bush do it too? You bet, if Bush's comments on Gore's plans for universal government-funded preschool are anything to judge by.
Immediately following Gore's Monday appearance on Oprah Winfrey's TV show, in which Gore said his number one priority is "universal preschool for every child," Bush issued a press release criticizing the vice president's plan. Well, not the plan itself exactly, but the way Gore talks about the plan.
According to Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett, Gore's plan for universal preschool "doesn't even cover three-year-olds." True enough. Gore's $50 billion proposal is $150 billion short of the estimated $200 billion it would cost to send all three- and four-year-olds to preschool. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with pointing out that Gore's numbers don't add up. And there's nothing nobler than informing the public when a politician is up to no good. But as usual, the Bush campaign totally missed the point.
Gore's big lie isn't about the funding for his preschool plan — it's his claim that we need this program in the first place. In ceding that ground, the Bush campaign has given up the fight exactly where it should be fought.
The truth is that neither Bush nor Gore tells the truth when it comes to preschool, but the truth-train goes off the rails long before they even get to the issue of funding. Gore's universal preschool and Bush's preschool-lite play into the hands of self-appointed children's advocates who claim that attending preschool is the key to later school achievement. That claim is, quite simply, false.
There is no evidence whatsoever that preschool serves children any better than old-fashioned, at-home parenting. Preschool programs established to help children — from Head Start, which targets poor children, to Georgia's new universal preschool program — have consistently failed to raise children's test scores or result in any measurable, lasting benefits to kids.
Nor is it the case, as Gore implies, that most parents would like to send their children to preschools but just can't afford it. The gap between the preschool attendance rates of children from high- and low-income families has narrowed from 28 percentage points to just 13 points. And more than half of children do attend preschool. The fact that not all children attend preschool simply reflects the fact that not all parents want their children to go.
To many parents, preschool is a second-best option. A recent study by the non-partisan research organization Public Agenda found that nearly 70 percent of parents of young children said they "prefer to stay home with children when they are young." This confirms what polls have been showing for years: Most parents still believe that having a parent at home is the best arrangement for young children.
Regardless of whether they've been taught at home or in preschools, America's four-year-olds are first-rate students. A recent study of children entering kindergarten by the Department of Education found them to be in great shape in terms of physical health, enthusiasm, and curiosity, the factors kindergarten teachers say are the most important for school readiness. Nearly all are proficient at recognizing numbers and shapes, and counting to ten; two in three know their ABCs.
It's also in the early years when American students are most competitive internationally. In England, France, and Denmark, nearly all four-year-olds attend public preschools. But international tests show that by age nine, when the benefits of preschool should still be apparent, American children outscore nearly all of their universally preschooled peers on tests of reading, math, and science. It's only in the later years, when most American children have been long stuck in public schools of questionable quality, that students abroad pull ahead. Apparently Bush and Gore were in such a hurry to squabble over who spends the most on preschool that neither took the time to figure out whether parents and children need or even want it.
But even if preschool were right for every child, this still wouldn't mean the federal government should provide it, any more than it should provide families with diapers or bottles or booties. Bush talks of a federal government that does few things but does them well, yet forgets that caring for young children is a family, not a federal, responsibility. There is no mention of preschool (or education, for that matter) in the Constitution, and for good reason. The way parents raise their children is a personal matter steeped in cultural and moral traditions that deserves protection, not direction, from the state's heavy hand.
And on a practical level, it would be foolish to entrench government still further in the education business when public schools show it is failing in this business to begin with.
Bush has spent a great deal of time on his campaign talking about leadership — that a good leader "must set the right tone" and be "guided by his convictions." Now is a perfect opportunity for Bush to walk the walk. But if his convictions alone fail him, he can always rely on the polls. According to Public Agenda, while 7 in 10 self-proclaimed children's advocates surveyed say that the best direction for government policy is to move toward a universal, national child-care system, only 25 percent of parents of young children share that vision. Strange as it may seem to Bush and Gore, letting parents parent is exactly what parents want.
When Bush appears on the Oprah Winfrey show next Tuesday, he should speak plainly: applaud American parents on a job well done and pledge to leave parenting to those who do it best.