With kids heading back to school, we're once again confronted with the failures of our public-school system. Despite the $6.5 billion federal Head Start program, many low-income students are not equipped with the basic skills needed to learn when they arrive for their first day of kindergarten.
As a result, there are increasing calls to offer universal preschool, which basically means replacing the current, mainly private, preschool system with a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy that would likely add one or two years of "voluntary" preschool onto elementary schools.
Here in California, several groups are pushing a $2.5 billion initiative that would provide preschool for all 4-year-olds in the state. The plan is particularly interesting because the bulk of the $2.5 billion wouldn't be spent getting low-income kids ready for school. Instead, it would go to subsidize preschool for middle- and upper-class kids already attending preschool, since 66 percent of California's 4-year-olds already attend pre-kindergarten classes.
According to Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the initiative would increase preschool enrollment by just 11 percent in the state - so $2.5 billion in taxpayer money would get an estimated 60,000 additional kids into preschool while subsidizing all preschoolers.
And what would that money get taxpayers and students in return?
Not much. A Goldwater Institute report states that, after 10 years, Georgia's universal preschool program "has served over 300,000 children at a cost of $1.15 billion, and children's test scores are unchanged."
In addition, historical trends in preschool are unpromising. The preschool enrollment rate of 4-year-olds has climbed from 16 percent to 66 percent since 1965. Despite the change from home education to formal early education, overall student achievement has stagnated since 1970.
Past and current experience with our failing public school system tells us those are exactly the kinds of results we should expect from the bungling education bureaucracy. Universal preschool would deliver more than taxpayers bargained for in the form of red tape and teachers unions - and dramatically less than we paid for in results.
The federal government and local bureaucracies are already mismanaging existing federal preschool programs. On the local level, a federal audit of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, one of the largest recipients of Head Start grants in the nation, found minor to severe safety, administrative and fiscal problems, such as the improper monitoring of student medication, to improperly enrolling high-income students. This mismanagement could cause Los Angeles County to lose $210 million in federal funding for preschool.
And yet, California's universal preschool supporters advocate giving this office control over the entire Los Angeles preschool market.
Just imagine: Using our failing public elementary schools as its model, the universal preschool system could deliver overcrowded classes of 3- and 4-year-olds sitting at their desks holding No. 2 pencils preparing to take a standardized test to prove they are on their way to learning their ABCs and reading. The kids can't read yet. But no doubt, they would need passing scores on a flash-card test so the school could secure more federal and state funding.
That's not what we want or need from our preschools.
We should make every effort to get low- and middle-income students into early learning classes. Vouchers that send underprivileged kids to the existing array of private preschools, Montessori schools, home day-care centers, church-based preschools and nonprofit centers throughout Los Angeles would accomplish that without the burdensome, costly bureaucracy that has failed our kids so many times before.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation.