My local newspaper, the Kalamazoo Gazette, recently had an interesting interview with the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, Jase Bolger. According to reporter Julie Mack,
[Speaker Bolger] also expressed reluctance about spending more tax dollars on social programs for early childhood. He acknowledged the research that shows the value of early intervention services, but also he sees it as an area where government programs intrude on the role of the private and nonprofit sectors.
”It’s a very difficult balance,” he said. “Kids go hungry, so schools start feeding them. Kids get in trouble after school, so there’s after-school [programs]. Parents don’t read to kids at home, so we give reading help at school. Parents don’t get kids ready for kindergarten, so we need preschool.”
”We turn to schools to do the things that parents aren’t doing” and it builds an expectation in parents that it’s really the schools’ responsibility, Bolger said. “It’s an unintended consequence of government doing too much.”
The print version of the article stopped there. The online version added one more crucial sentence:
This doesn’t mean that the state won’t expand early childhood programs, he added, “but my point is we need to be very careful.”
I think Speaker Bolger reflects an uneasiness that is common among some policymakers. Is government interfering too much when it engages in early childhood programs? Will government programs discourage parents from fulfilling their responsibilities?
What can be said in response to such uneasiness?
First, there is no evidence that publicly supported early childhood programs lead to poorer parenting. In fact, many early childhood programs seek to improve parenting. Good preschool programs seek to encourage parent involvement in their child’s education. Good home visitation programs, such as the Nurse Family Partnership program, center their program on empowering parents.
Second, much of what early childhood programs do involve activities that are difficult for parents to do completely on their own. For example, some of the social skills developed in preschool are difficult to develop outside of an organized group setting. That is why private preschool enrollment rates are so high among families with over $100,000 in income.
Third, as with any additional program, it is always possible that a new program will substitute to some degree for what is already going on. For example, a free, universally accessible preschool program may attract some parents who otherwise would have paid to enroll their child in a private preschool. However, many middle class and working class parents cannot afford the high cost of high-quality preschool. Preschool programs with broad eligibility also allow integration of different income groups, which may help develop adults who can work with diverse groups.
Fourth, the estimates of the high benefit to cost ratio for high-quality early childhood programs already account for whatever the programs’ effects are on parental and private activities. For example, the various studies on how state-supported pre-K programs affect kindergarten readiness already account for any possible effects on reducing enrollment in other pre-K programs. The state pre-K program is being compared with whatever child care and preschool options parents use on their own if their child is too young to get into the state program.
Fifth, publicly-supported early childhood programs can be structured to encourage more parental and private sector responsibility. For example, state support can go to quality private pre-K programs as well as programs run by public schools. Parents with sufficient income can be asked to pay tuition on a sliding scale.
Sixth, I certainly agree that we should be careful in adopting any policy towards early childhood programs. Part of that policy should be to ensure accountability for results. We can design early childhood programs so that we regularly collect data on outcomes. In that way, the public can be assured that their funding is actually improving our society and economy. In addition, accountability encourages programs to be improved in their performance over time.
While we should be careful in adopting early childhood programs, there are also costs in doing nothing. Doing nothing means that we are not adopting programs that are known to improve the outcomes of former child participants as adults, that are known to have short-run and long-run positive effects in creating more and better jobs, and that are known to reduce crime. Every year in which we avoid action means another cohort of children without needed early childhood services. We know that the lack of such services will have a cost for both those families and for the broader society and overall local economy.