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Left Turn: Obama Pre-K Proposal Raises Serious Questions

When President Obama called for expanded access to early childhood education during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline warned, “Before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives, such as Head Start.”

House and Senate Republicans have raised questions about the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) management of the Head Start program, concerned about whether the program is effectively serving students, families, and taxpayers. And considering an alarming HHS study recently revealed Head Start participants had little to show for the program by the time they reached the third grade, Republicans aren’t the only folks questioning the merits of the president’s plan to expand pre-K education. Take a look at what the press and policy experts are saying:


Mr. Obama claimed that "study after study" showed every dollar of pre-Kindergarten "investment" saves seven dollars later on, through better student performance, graduation rates and the like. Keep this man away from a stock portfolio, let alone the social sciences. In December, Mr. Obama's own Health and Human Services Department released an evaluation of Head Start, the 47-year-old program for low-income toddlers, and concluded that any cognitive gains disappeared by the third grade. HHS had sat on the legally mandated study for more than a year.Wall Street Journal

Critics say the federal government has already tested a national preschool program with Head Start. A national study sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services of 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds in 84 local programs found few lasting benefits by third grade. “It’s one thing to say that there are a handful of small pre-K programs that may have had lasting and significant benefits,” said Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Cato Center for Educational Freedom, a unit of the Cato Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization. “It’s another to imagine that the federal government can scale them up nationally.”New York Times


The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the White House, released a report last week on universal preschool that provides hints. Under the center’s plan, the federal government would provide up to $10,000 per child to match a state’s investment in early childhood education. The center put the 10-year federal cost at $98.4 billion. - Politico

Universal preschool is no small matter because there are more than 4 million U.S. 4-year-olds. Quality programs can average $8,000 a child, according to Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at New America Foundation, a Washington-based policy group. By Guernsey’s reckoning, states and the federal government would have to spend $10 billion to $15 billion a year more than the roughly $9 billion they are already budgeting annually. – Bloomberg Businessweek


In all, taxpayers already spend an estimated $25 billion on some 45 federal day-care and pre-school programs annually. The Head Start program costs taxpayers over $7 billion annually. Moreover, funding for child care for low-income families is provided through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) and through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs, to the tune of $10 billion per year.National Review Online

As Chairman Kline said, “We can all agree on the importance of ensuring children have the foundation they need to succeed in school and in life.”  But there are serious questions that the president must answer about this latest proposal. At a time when our government struggles with record spending and deficits, leaders in Washington must be especially wary to avoid throwing good money after bad. The president’s new early childhood education proposal should be carefully evaluated to ensure it will work for families and taxpayers – without piling more debt on the backs of the children it is intended to benefit.

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