by Kerry McDonald
President Biden’s proposed $2 trillion-plus Build Back Better Act failed to gain US Senate approval in 2021, but efforts remain to move forward with a revised version that would include universal government preschool programs and taxpayer-funded child care subsidies.
As US Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA) said recently about taxpayer-backed daycare: “It is the issue that has survived all the iterations, and it is going to be the issue that we are able to get over the line with in the Build Back Better agenda.”
The push for federally-funded universal preschool and child care programs continues despite new data showing the harms of government preschool programs, as well as harms to small community preschool providers.
I wrote (and spoke) last year about the main reasons we should oppose Biden’s universal preschool plan, including the long track record of failure for government preschool programs such as Head Start and the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program. Analyses of these programs consistently show that student participants don’t experience any sustained gains, and may in fact be worse off than students who do not participate in public preschool programs.
Government Preschool Students Have Worse Outcomes
Evaluations of the Tennessee pre-kindergarten program, in particular, found that by third grade the academic performance of children in the government preschool program was worse than the control group of similar children who did not participate in the program.
Now, researchers at Vanderbilt University who have been tracking the long-term outcomes gleaned from the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program’s randomized control study discovered that by sixth grade the government preschool children fared even worse than the control group of students who did not participate in the preschool program.
Specifically, the students who attended the public preschool program scored lower on reading, math, and science achievement tests in sixth grade than the control group. Notably, the government preschool program students also performed worse on academic tests in third grade, and this achievement gap only grew by sixth grade.
The public preschool attendees were also far more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability and given an IEP (individualized education plan) by sixth grade than the students who did not attend the program. Behaviorally, the public preschool program students were more likely to commit school-level offenses by sixth grade than the control group, and were more likely to be disciplined for serious offenses such as violence or bringing weapons to school.
Government Preschool Programs Harm Small Business Owners
If the harms to children aren’t enough to stop the expansion of government preschool programs, then the harms to small business owners should be.
In cities like Chicago where universal preschool programs have been introduced, private preschool and daycare providers, unable to compete with the “free” Chicago Public Schools (CPS) option, are being pushed out of business. Many of these private business owners are women and people of color and when their companies close, community child care shortages worsen.
For Jenna Colby, the impending threat of government preschool programs has prevented her from expanding her small Montessori preschool in rural Hillsborough, New Hampshire, despite a long waitlist of parents who wish to enroll their children. The lockdowns and related coronavirus policies in 2020 nearly destroyed her business, but now she can’t keep up with parent demand for private options. Colby herself recently un-enrolled her seven-year-old daughter from her local district school for homeschooling due to frustrations over ongoing coronavirus policies and lack of academic rigor.
Parents are eager to send their children to Colby’s preschool, but her space constraints make it impossible for her to expand enrollment, which currently stands at 20 students ages 2.9 to 6 years old. Her preschool offers care five days a week from 7:00 am to 5:30 pm at a cost of $200 per week, with part-time options available.
Colby would like to buy a building and increase her preschool capacity, but she worries that at any time the government could sweep in with a universal preschool program that would siphon away families with a “free” preschool option. “That’s the reason why we haven’t purchased a building. I’d have no job, in a town with a main street where it’s hard to get any restaurant to stay longer than six months,” she told me in a recent interview.
Colby says the top employers in her small town are the lightbulb manufacturer Osram-Sylvania, the public schools, and Shaw’s Supermarket. Her husband is a CT technician at a local hospital who works long, late hours. If her preschool closed it would be tough on her family, particularly if she purchased a bigger space and had to keep up with mortgage payments.
Instead, Colby says she’ll stay where she is in rented space with limited capacity and a lengthy parent waiting list. Colby’s experience demonstrates that even the threat of government action in expanding universal preschool and daycare creates child care shortages in communities across the country. Small business owners can’t properly act to meet demand, creating a market mismatch.
As the Nobel prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek said, “the more the state ‘plans’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” Colby’s plight shows just how right Hayek was, and how state “planning,” and even the specter of such planning, distorts the elegant process of voluntary exchange in a free market.
Government preschool programs continue to show that they do more harm than good for the children who participate in them, as well as harm small business owners and exacerbate child care shortages. Any efforts to introduce or expand these programs should be vigorously opposed.
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Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019). She is also an adjunct scholar at The Cato Institute and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.