Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Universal Pre-K Scam

by John Stossel

Did you go to preschool? When I was growing up, few kids did. But now there is a new movement that says every child in America should have a chance to start school before kindergarten -- at taxpayer expense. It's part of President Obama's massive spending plans. His "stimulus" bill includes an Early Learning Challenge Grant to encourage states to "Develop a cutting-edge plan to raise the quality of your early learning programs"

It's a popular idea. Sixty-seven percent of Americans favor universal pre-K funded by the government. But I doubt that most Americans have thought it through. Mia Levi has. She told me, "This whole thing is a scam." Levi runs six preschools. I thought she'd favor the program, since she'd collect easy money from the government. "I don't want to have to answer to the government," she said in my ABC special "Bailouts and Bull." "Our programs are so far superior."

Universal pre-K would create a single standard for preschools, but why is that a good thing? Why should we think there is one way to do preschool and that government experts know what it is? President Obama doesn't acknowledge what Nobel economist F. A. Hayek taught us: Competition is a discovery process.

Levi has to work hard to improve her schools because she knows that, unlike with government services, parents have options. "If we didn't do our job, families would go down the street to the next school. Public schools aren't doing their job, and they get to just keep opening their doors. To say that they are the ones to define ... quality is laughable."

As she says, the pre-K movement has the whiff of scam about it. Most American kids already attend preschool. Parents pay for it themselves, and those who can't afford it can get government subsidies or use free programs like Head Start. But under universal pre-K, taxpayers would pay for every child. "It's a flagrant waste of money," Levi said. "It's as if I went shopping for myself because I needed a dress for a party and I bought a dress for everybody else whether they needed it or not."

But we keep hearing that investment in pre-K will pay off later. Obama says, "For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health costs and less crime." Those glowing statistics come from tiny studies (58 children) of places like Michigan's Perry Preschool. But those low-income, low-IQ kids got much more than preschool, including after-school tutoring, and their moms and dads got parenting classes. Lisa Snell, education director of the Reason Foundation, says you can't expect similar results with middle- and higher income children.

In addition, lots of studies say the preschool effect fades. Head Start is revered for raising test scores, but studies show that by grades 3 or 4 those gains vanish. "They can't tell the difference between the kids that went to Head Start and the kids who didn't," Snell says. "When they compared them to the kids that are disadvantaged that didn't go to Head Start, they can't tell from their test scores which kids had the treatment of Head Start."

There's still another flaw in the program. Some studies have found that too much school may lead to disruptive and aggressive behavior. Libby Doggett, who leads one of the biggest pre-K advocacy groups, concedes that, but claims that "high-quality" government programs benefit children. She said Oklahoma and Georgia have them already. But those states, despite spending billions of tax dollars on preschool for the past 10 years, have not shown impressive results. Oklahoma's students lost ground to kids from other states.

Doggett replied: "We don't want to just focus on IQ scores. We want to look at how children are doing in their social and emotional, their non-cognitive development." Please. When the huge government program fails to raise scores, the central planners promise it will help the kids socially? Give me a break.


Rigid British education bureaucracy produces crazy results

Boy, 4, refused place at village school where his family has been taught since his great-great-great grandfather built it

A boy of four has been has been told he cannot go to his village school - even though it was built by his great-great-great grandfather and has taught every generation of his family. When he starts school in September, Jamie Turner will not have a place in the primary just 150 yards from home but will have to attend another in a village two miles away. Priority goes to children who have siblings at the school - but Jamie's brother Joshua, 11, will be leaving when the new term starts.

Littledean C of E Primary was built in 1852 by their great-great-great grandfather, stonemason William Smith, and still carries a plaque bearing his name. Jamie currently attends the nursery which is housed in the school building.

His furious mother Leigh, 31, a care assistant, today attacked Gloucestershire County Council, which is giving places at the school to children from nearby Cinderford even though that village has three primaries of its own. She said: 'It's all wrong - the system has ruled that Jamie can't go to a school around the corner from his home yet they are bringing in children from outside the area. 'His great-great-great grandfather built the school and our family have always gone there, yet the majority of the children they've taken in are from Cinderford, not Littledean. They should give priority to local families.'

Joshua and elder sibling Ashleigh, 13, have both attended the school - as has every generation of their family since the 1800s. Mrs Turner added: 'The whole family is really upset. Jamie's quite shy and still cuddles my leg when I drop him off at nursery so he'd be lost if we tried to make him go to another school.' Father Gary, 30, a self-employed taxi driver, added: 'There has been a member of Jamie's family at that school since 1852 - so it baffles me that he has been rejected. 'If this is the system then the system needs to be changed - it's a total disgrace.' Jamie's grandfather David Annetts called it situation 'an outrage' and said: 'I have aunties and uncles in their 90s who went to that school.'

The Turners have appealed against the decision and headteacher Val Huggett has contacted Gloucestershire County Council to voice her support for the family. But Sam Budd, the council's senior access manager, said the authority had no choice but to refuse Jamie admission because it had received 19 first preferences for Littledean's 15 places - and 15 of them were from families with children already there.

'While we sympathise with Ms Turner, the county council has to abide by the school's admission criteria,' Mr Budd said. 'Jamie has been offered a place at Forest View Primary, which is the nearest school with free places.' The only option for children in Jamie's position is to go on a waiting list in case places became available after all, he added.


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