Do early childhood programs represent too much government intervention into the role of parents?

I’m continuing to provide brief answers to questions I have received when I have made presentations on early childhood programs.

Today’s question is: “Do early childhood programs represent too much government intervention into the role of parents?” Some voters and policymakers have a visceral reaction that makes them uneasy about government-sponsored programs becoming so involved in childhood development.

Early childhood programs do not replace good parenting, rather they help complement and strengthen parenting. Early childhood programs are important even for the best and most fortunate of parents, because these programs provide services that are hard for parents to replicate on their own.

The skills of getting along with peers and with authority figures are skills that can be better learned in organized group settings, such as those provided by preschool. Parents, and particularly upper class parents, increasingly realize this. That is why preschool enrollment rates are highest among parents earning above $100,000 per year in income. These parents can afford high-quality preschool, and they are buying it for their kids.

Preschool enrollment rates are next highest among families below the poverty line, who are eligible for Head Start. But enrollment rates show a “U-shaped dip” for families in between the poverty line and $100,000 per year in income. These parents find it hard to pay for high-quality preschool, which can cost around $5,000 per year for a program that provides 3 hours per day of services during the school year. A key challenge is how to help middle-class and working-class parents afford a service that can help complement and strengthen what they do as parents.

A good preschool program, in addition to helping children get better academic skills and social skills, also works to involve parents in the program, through encouraging parent visits to the school, and through frequent communication with parents. High-quality preschool strengthens parenting.

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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