Empowering Families

Ken Blackwell

2/28/2008 12:01:00 AM - Ken Blackwell

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.

Today these inner-city options are themselves at risk. While private and religious schools are serving more minority children than ever (the minority enrollment at Catholic schools has grown by 250 percent since 1970), the financial squeeze on these schools is intense and tightening. Between 1996 and 2004, nearly 1,400 urban center faith-based schools have closed, denying 355,000 students the education of their choice.

President Bush has asked the Congress to spend $300 million of the massive educational budget on a new "Pell Grants for Kids" program for elementary school students. The proposal is modeled on the college-level Pell grants program.

Under the president’s proposed program, the grants would be available to students enrolled in schools that are demonstrably failing despite the massive attempts to rescue them. The grants could fund private school, faith-based and out-of-district public school options. Parents would make the call, giving them the leverage to demand and get improvements in the local public school.

Our nation's divided mind about education is a result of tradition and a series of judicial decisions that have weakened the local, parental, and religious commitments of public elementary schools. Choice prevails at the upper levels and is actively resisted where it may matter most, with children in their formative years when the habits of learning are acquired.

Today, thanks to the work of organizations like the Alliance Defense Fund, the right of younger students to the free exercise of religion on an equal basis is being acknowledged, slowing down the rush to a radically secular school environment in many parts of the country. While it is by no means the only reason for the home schooling phenomenon, that radical secularization has prompted many parents to rethink completely their relationship with the publicly funded option.

Parents want options that reflect their values. The goal of public policy, in this regard, should be to empower parents and provide them with resources, not force them into an unresponsive mold. If the nation’s children are to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn, governors should fight against the inclination to appease entrenched special interests and look to parents for answers. After all, they know their children best.