Elizabeth Warren’s bad idea on preschool

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Elizabeth Warren, one of the — what is it now, 211? — candidates for president, seems intent on proving that having been a Harvard law professor is no bar to fatuous policy prescriptions. She has endorsed the farrago of foolishness called the Green New Deal, promises to tax the rich to “make the economy work for us” and recently proposed a shiny new policy idea fresh from 1971: government-funded universal preschool.

Decade after decade, this old chestnut is trotted out as a pro-family, pro-middle class reform, and every time, assumptions about government’s competence to perform this task are blithely assumed.


Any sentence that begins “In the wealthiest country on Earth…” is bound to introduce a massive government program of some sort, and Warren’s statements are no exception. She urges that “affordable and high-quality child care and early education should be a right, not a privilege reserved for the rich.” Sounds expensive. Who will pay? Warren proposes to tax the wealth of “ultra-millionaires — those with a net worth of more than $50 million.”

Two things about taxing the rich: 1) They don’t have enough to pay for the fond schemes of politicians, and 2) they can afford to pay the estate planners and tax lawyers who know how to minimize taxes.

But even supposing the “ultra-rich” would hold still while the state extracted a fixed yearly portion of their net worth, any plan for universal pre-K deserves skepticism — the opposite of what most news stories convey. ABC News, for example, contends, “The benefits of early child care have long been documented, even showing taxpayers can make money back when investing in high-quality early education.”

This is tendentious and wrong. The links ABC provided don’t even support its assertion. The first is to a National Education Association publication (hardly a neutral arbiter), citing one famous study of extremely high-quality day care, the Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention Project. That program got good results, but it was utterly unrepresentative of most day cares in the U.S. It was generously funded and staffed by college graduates. Teachers read aloud to the children, responded to their questions and encouraged their abilities. According to a 2006 survey by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, only 9 percent of American preschools were rated “very high quality.”

The second link ABC provided also references the small, unrepresentative Abecedarian program, but this paper, far from agreeing that the benefits of day care are “documented,” notes that the matter is “strongly contested.”

Not only are high-quality day cares rare, there is abundant data that day care can be harmful in large doses, especially for very young children, and particularly for boys. A Tennessee study found that kids enrolled in pre-K seemed at first to perform well on cognitive tests, but they fell behind their peers by third grade. “You have school systems that are pushing pre-K when they have demonstrably failing K-12 systems,” Dale Farran, one of the study’s authors, told FiveThirtyEight. “It makes me cringe.”

The sort of program Warren envisions has already been implemented — in the Canadian province of Quebec. Universal preschool for just $5 (later $7) a day was introduced in 1997. The number of families placing their children in day care increased by 33 percent. But a follow-up study in 2015 found that boys in day care showed more hyperactivity and aggression, while girls showed more separation anxiety. Quebec’s teenagers who had “benefitted” from the program were less happy with life in general than those from other provinces, and Quebec experienced a “sharp increase” in criminal behavior among those who had been in the program.

Among the many cautionary notes to arise from the Canadian experience was the effect universal preschool had on parents. As The Atlantic reported, a 2015 study found that “the parents of girls were two times less likely to spend time reading to, laughing with, or doing special activities like going to the library with their child.”

There is a relentless push to move children and even babies into the arms of the educational establishment, even as there is near-universal agreement that our schools leave much to be desired. Who has confidence that Sen. Warren’s scheme would produce quality care at a reasonable price? And who doesn’t worry about the 3-year-olds pushed too soon from the nest?

Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.\

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