Thursday, February 28, 2013

More Government Schools a Good Thing? ... LBJ's Head Start Program Revisited? ... Education and Government "Help" ... The President's Free Universal Preschool Idea

I attended public school in a small town in central Illinois from K-12 and graduated from high school in 1961. That was before government mandated "improvements" in America's public schools became a serious nationwide effort.

But despite the absence of the federal government's 'assistance,' we all had the opportunity to get a solid education in that small central Illinois town. The local community, parents, teachers, administrators and local school board all made it happen. And local property taxes paid for it.

And then the federal government got going in the mid 60s and things have never been the same. Are they better now? No, they're not. But they're lots more expensive, and the rest of the world has largely passed us by in the field of education. So what's President Obama proposing? More government, of course. Isn't that always his answer to our problems, even if it's nearly always the wrong one?

Oh well, at least he's popular. But let's take a look at the facts, at least as I see them as a former Illinois K-12 youngster and now a Georgia based oldster. And by the way, I also attended and graduated from schools in Nebraska and Colorado along the way to adulthood.

President Johnson introduced Head Start in 1965. President Obama wants to bring it back in a modernized form in 2013. Why?

We've had No Child Left Behind "help" and now we have Race to the Top "help."

We've had lots of government help with college student loans and stimulus spending related to K-12 schools.

And since the 60s, we've received lots of help and advice from public school teachers unions, too.

In the private sector, government has enacted legislation that requires Truth-in-Lending and Truth-in Advertising from companies. Why don't these same requirements exist for public schools and universities that receive billions of dollars in taxpayer aid?

In my state of Georgia, nearly 1 of 3 students drops out of high school. And many of those who do manage to graduate haven't received much of an education.

Head Start for All is subtitled 'Universal preschool and a government that won't admit failure.' Is more government the answer to our educational shortcomings? Of course not, and here's what the article has to say about it:

"Government failure is hardly new, though President Obama has given it a characteristic new twist: A program's proven inability to do the things it is supposed to do is now an argument for expanding it. In our new progressive era, no program can ever end because the only reason government fails is that there wasn't enough government in the first place. . . .

There may not be a better illustration of this contradiction between intentions and results than Mr. Obama's new demand for free universal preschool.

Speaking last week in Decatur, Georgia, Mr. Obama said that "education has to start at the earliest possible age" and cited "study after study" that purport to show public preschool for every child results in lasting academic gains and other cognitive and social improvements. He also claimed universal pre-K can lead to higher wages later in life and less crime and dependence on government....

"Hope is found in what works," Mr. Obama added. "This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here."

The President was in Georgia because since 1995 the state has subsidized free preschool, regardless of family income. Some 59.3% of four-year-olds were enrolled in the 2010-2011 school year, and Mr. Obama is right that the state is a good example of what universal pre-K can buy.

President Barack Obama plays a learning game while visiting children at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia.

Georgia's fourth- and eighth-grade reading, math and science scores all trail the national average, and the spread between white and black or Hispanic students is 25 points. Nearly one of three teenagers drops out of high school, the third worst rate in the country. All of this is consistent with the phenomenon known as "fade out," in which any tangible gains from preschool dissipate as students progress through elementary school.

Careful work by Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research looked at student achievement in Georgia as its pre-K program phased in. While she found some modest gains, she also concluded that the costs outweighed the benefits by a ratio of six to one. Nearly 80% of enrollment is "just a transfer of income from the government to families of four year olds" who would have attended preschool anyway.

Nationwide today about 1.3 million kids, or 28% of all four-year-olds, attend state-funded pre-K, a leap from 14% in 2002. The empirical case for this expansion—the evidence that universal preschool "works," as Mr. Obama put it—rests on two academic studies, the Abecedarian and Perry projects, conducted four and five decades ago. . . .

These experiments showed vast returns on investment, the source of Mr. Obama's claim that every early education dollar generates $7 down the line. Yet Abecedarian and Perry cost between $16,000 to $41,000 per child per year (in current dollars), the higher end comparable to Ivy League tuition. Georgia spends $4,298 per child.

The extra money was required because these were very intensive interventions that included home visits, parent counseling, nutrition, health care and other social services. They were micro-enterprises run by the most experienced early education experts and impossible to replicate. Mr. Obama is simply pocketing their results and pretending that this can be extrapolated to the entire population. It can't even be replicated in Georgia.

For this reason, what "study after study" really suggest is that government-funded pre-K programs are best when they are targeted at low-income, disadvantaged or minority children—those with the most need. Such a modest, practical reform may lack Mr. Obama's preferred political grandeur, but the other reason he didn't propose it is that the government has already been doing it for a half-century.

That would be Lyndon Johnson's Head Start program, birth date 1965. In December of last year, the Health and Human Services Department released the most comprehensive study of Head Start to date, which took years to prepare. The 346-page report followed toddlers who won lotteries to join Head Start in several states and those who didn't through the third grade. There were no measurable differences between the two groups across 47 outcome measures. In other words, Head Start's impact is no better than random. . . .

Counting Head Start, special education and state-subsidized preschool, 42% of four-year-olds are now enrolled in a government program. Federal, state and local financing for early learning is closing in on $40 billion a year, double what it was a decade ago. But can anyone say that achievement is twice as good—or even as good? . . .

The public schools fail the poor, but reforming them is hard and would upset the unions. So instead liberals propose Head Start to prepare poor kids for kindergarten. Head Start has little to show after 47 years, but rather than replacing it, the new liberal solution is to expand it to everyone.

Meanwhile, pundits who claim to be empiricists lecture Republicans to agree to all this so they don't appear to be so hostile to government. Everyone pretends that spending more on programs that have demonstrably failed is a sign of compassion and "what works," government expands without results, and the poor are offered only the false hope of liberal good intentions."

Summing Up

Government control of education doesn't work well. Not at all.

Except for the teachers unions, school administrators and the Democratic Party, of course.

The facts are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable. Our schools are getting worse.

Why can't We the People control how our money is spent and where it is spent on educating our children?

Why aren't we insisting on vouchers and school choice?

Why do we allow the government to keep all this information about the failure to improve our educational system largely in the dark?

Why are we such wimps?

Thanks. Bob.

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