Biden wants to wrap preschools in red tape

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COVID-19 closures and school closures that ignore local conditions have served as a helpful reminder that one-size-fits-all policies are generally not the best solutions. Now, the Biden administration is applying unique logic to its universal pre-K plan.

After a year and a half of cyclical government-ordered school and daycare closings, many parents are in desperate need of help. They may think any help is better than no help, but President Joe Biden is proposing a rigid model this will increase childcare costs and result in less variety among preschools.

Under the Biden plan, states will only be able to provide federal funds to preschool programs that provide at least 1,020 hours of instruction per year. It’s more hours than most states require for children in K-12 schools. In my home state of Pennsylvania, 900 hours are considered full-time for elementary school; for high school, it’s 990 hours. Oregon, Massachusetts, Idaho, New Hampshire, Utah and Virginia also peak at 990 hours. Some states are even lower. Requiring more hours per year than what high schools have to offer is a ridiculous mandate to put on a pre-K program. Preschool is meant to be a bridge to full-time school. Parents who don’t want a full-time preschool program aren’t well served by Biden’s plan.

Biden’s universal pre-K plan will increase teaching costs because it requires the pay of preschool teachers to match the salaries of elementary teachers, provided they have similar degrees and experience. Elementary school salaries vary by district. Will private providers have to match their pay scale to the public school pay scale dominated by local unions? It is essentially a question of putting current salary preschool program rules and unnecessarily increase costs.

The “free” nature of the Biden plan will also increase costs by increasing demand from parents who otherwise would not be interested in a full-time preschool. If their choices are to pay for a program with fewer hours or to get one with more hours at no cost, many will choose the “free” program, although they would normally have preferred another option. We are already seeing this game in K-12 schools; polls show that only 40 percent of parents would choose their district school if they could afford other options, but 80 percent of students attend traditional public schools.

Any state that subscribes to the Biden plan must realize that state taxpayers will be responsible for these new programs when federal money runs out. Federal reimbursement for the universal preschool program falls to 64% in 2027, and then to zero soon after. So, the Biden plan will create a new bureaucracy, increase preschool costs, provide partial funding for a few years, and then state taxpayers will be faced with massive new costs as far as the eye can see.

Not only will state taxpayers end up with the bill, parents will also end up with programs that are not flexible enough to meet their needs. And for what purpose? New research by Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman strengthens the case for targeted rather than universal social service programs. “More advantaged families are better able to access, use and influence universally available programs”, Heckman and co-author Rasmus Landersø written in a March 2020 discussion paper. These benefits do not disappear with universal provision, so these programs can exacerbate inequalities. Heckman believes that targeted programs are more effective in reducing inequalities.

But the US government does not have the best record with targeted programs. Consider the Head Start preschool program, which should model Biden’s plan according to Tommy sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association. The most complete Head Start Study, released by the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, found that the program had little to no impact on student outcomes in Grade 3, despite costing more than $ 7 billion per year at the time ($ 7,900 per participant).

There is no doubt that “free” preschool seems attractive to parents of young children, but they have to be careful what they want. All over the country there are contentious school council meetings and political races showing how impossible it is to satisfy everyone with a universal program.

On the bright side, the choice of K-12 education is flourishing faced with this parental frustration. So far this year, 18 states have adopted new education choice programs or expanded existing ones. Many of them were education savings accounts (ESA), which are the most flexible form of education choice, allowing parents to use taxpayer funds for various educational needs such as tutoring, tuition, and services for students with special needs . It would be a tragic irony if kindergarten got bogged down in bureaucratic mandates and federal involvement just as parents have access to more K-12 options.

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