Across the country, governors are rushing to pour more and more tax dollars into state-run preschool programs. Today, all but ten states offer some sort of taxpayer-funded preschool for some three and four year olds – primarily based on need.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, more than $3.3 billion is spent on the nearly 950,000 children who used these programs each year. And last year, 28 states increased government funding by a combined 13 percent.
Reaching our youngest and most vulnerable children early with the basics of a good education is a good idea. The problem is many states are locking these students into dysfunctional and underperforming public education systems just a few years early.
If governors and legislatures want to expand public preschool, they should be mindful of the mistakes of the past. Instead of ceding more authority and tax dollars to entrenched educational bureaucracies and teachers’ unions, parent empowerment and education choice programs should be considered. And, if parents choose parochial or faith-based schools, so be it.
The real strength of America's education system is in the diversity of educational opportunities. This diversity has allowed competition, preserved choice, and increased educational experimentation. Any valid proposal to improve educational opportunity for our youngest children will build on both of these strengths.
To an extent that many educational experts would just as soon ignore, both of these factors that have so much to do with the character of education and the character of our children are showing signs of stress. Each of them will, sadly, only heighten the temptation for government to step in with an expensive, one-size-fits-all cure that will only aggravate the education gap our nation faces today despite its high level of expenditures.
Genuine choice of school options is essential. Students and families take this right seriously at the collegiate level. Federal and state policies support it. Why should we have anything less for the younger grades, or for any new pre-K program? This factor is particularly important for our most vulnerable children, those of low income and those with single parents.
While many public schools and teachers do heroic jobs in our inner cities, education in urban America has benefited tremendously from private and religious schools, especially Catholic schools, that offer discipline and character instruction that buttress the parental role and make education work.