Philosophical objections to early childhood programs, part 1: are early childhood programs like “Brave New World”?

Some objections to early childhood programs are not based on comparing these programs’ costs with benefits. Instead, these objections are a matter of principle. In chapter 11 of Investing in Kids, I consider some of these objections.

Some opponents of early childhood programs have a visceral feeling that early childhood programs involve the government crossing a line that should not be crossed.  For example, a philosophical objection to early childhood programs has been raised by Darcy Olsen, President and CEO of the Goldwater Institute in Arizona. I quote from a transcript of remarks that Ms. Olsen made in 2005:

“Abecedarian and…[the Chicago Child-Parent Centers] provide pretty good evidence that the right kinds of interventions…can change outcomes….The question then, for policymakers…is whether that is a level of intervention that parents are comfortable with and, certainly, that is one of the reasons that I believe the state needs to stay far away from this. It reminds me a little bit of Brave New World, where babies are assigned to different categories and they know they can produce certain outcomes…You can change outcomes, but who should be in the position of determining what those outcomes should be and who need[s] to be changed?”

What can be said in response to this philosophical objection? First, I think that most early childhood programs are a long way from government dictatorial control over the fortunes of individual children. A half-day of preschool during the school year at age 4 is not the same as Brave New World. Early childhood programs are voluntary, allowing for parent choice.

Second, many early childhood programs empower parents. For example, the Nurse Family Partnership involves nurse home visitors helping disadvantaged first-time mothers to be stronger parents.

Third, program design can address some concerns about excessive government control. Having more local control may allay concerns about excessive federal government involvement. At the local level, a variety of local designs and settings for preschool and other early childhood programs can provide more parental choice.

It may be true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. On the other hand, so is the road to heaven. If we seek to empower parents, and facilitate parental choice, we can help strengthen American families with high-quality early childhood programs.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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