Folbre’s sentiment reflects that of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who insists America has an early childcare and education “crisis” that threatens our economy. The solution, according to Pelosi and Folbre, is to adopt President Obama’s universal government-run preschool and childcare plan for all three- and four-year-olds.
Yet there’s scant evidence that expanding government would improve the quality of care, student learning, or affordability—much less the economy.
Three out of five mothers with preschool age children are employed, the vast majority of full-time. Almost half of all young children with employed mothers are cared for by relatives—a consistent pattern for decades. But is this situation a “crisis,” as Pelosi suggests, or a choice?
Parents from all walks of life choose child care based on their desire for nurturing providers, safe environments, convenient locations, and educational activities. Not surprisingly, employed mothers actively choose family members to watch their young children—especially in light of research indicating that children who spend extended periods in day care are more likely to display aggression and other problem behaviors.
The Democrats’ plan also ignores the preschool preferences of employed mothers. Fully 68 percent of preschoolers with employed mothers are in programs already, and most (64 percent) are enrolled full time. There’s no evidence to suggest that the rest of employed mothers even want their children in school at such a young age.
Expanding government’s role is more likely to impose expensive administrative burdens, crowd out innovative, personalized non-government childcare providers, and replace a variety of preschool options with a one-size-fits-all system.
To get an idea of the quality of care preschoolers would likely receive at the hands of government look at Head Start. Launched in 1965 as a six-week summer catch-up program for disadvantaged students about to enter kindergarten, today nearly 1 million children are enrolled at an annual cost of nearly $8 billion.
According to the two latest official evaluations, any academic impacts faded out as early as the end of first grade, and others dissipated by the end of third grade.
If impacts of government-run preschool fade out within a few years, how is it supposed to boost the economy?
There are better ways to help parents afford child care and early education. For starters, parents should be allowed to deduct 100 percent of their childcare costs, rather than depend on federal subsidies. Instead of funneling more money into Head Start, which advocates say should be expanded to parents of all income levels not just those in poverty, funds should be deposited on a per-student basis into Early Education Savings Accounts (EESAs) modeled after Arizona’s successful K-12 ESA program. With those funds low-income parents could choose their preferred preschool option.
States should also consider enacting Early Education Tax Credit scholarship programs, which would allow individual and corporate taxpayers to claim a dollar-for-dollar credit against their taxes for donations to non-profit organizations that award scholarships for children to attend the preschool program of their parents’ choice.
Pelosi and other advocates of more government child care should also recall that millions of parents make sacrifices to keep a spouse at home because they believe that’s best for their children. Government programs that push institutional care devalue these parents’ choices.
Policymakers shouldn’t just be trying to ease the financial burden for families who choose institutional daycare and preschool: They should be lowering taxes across the board so all families can keep more of what they earn.
At a time when one in eight Americans is un- or underemployed and the national debt is mounting, spending trillions of dollars more to further expand government into early child care and education makes no sense. Women want the benefits of a diverse economy, and employed mothers want their children to have diverse early care and learning opportunities—not more wasteful, ineffective government programs.
Note: This blog is based on a September 29, 2013, editorial published in the Boston Herald.