Friday, January 2, 2009

Beware of reports that government funded early childhood programs are THE answer to education and youth problems.

There are perpetual calls for more money for early childhood programs. This year will be no different. However, the looming $4.8 billion budget deficit makes it highly likely they'll get big dollars and in fact will face cuts.

Of course there will be claims that we're putting children at risk and the only way to prevent it is more money for more government programs.

The only problem is this approach is the myopic view that government has the answer for all social ills. If we just spent more money, we'd be able to solve the problems.

Of course, that's what President Johnson said in the 1960s with his War on Poverty and Great Society initiatives. The result forty years later? Trillions of dollars spent and poverty rates aren't much better while the family is in much worse shape -- about one third of children born out of wedlock which usually means without a dad in their lives.

The latest effort to promote early childhood programs is a research study by the Wilder Research study reported on in a Star Tribune story "Kids not ready for kindergarten costs schools $113 million a year." The story assumes that early childhood programs are the answer to youth education problems.

The bias of the story is found in the sub-headline which reads, "A Wilder Research study adds to the argument for more early childhood education." But when you read the story and the summary of the research there's no basis for that assertion. The study says that student drop outs, teacher absentees and turnover, special education needs, teaching English and delinquency problems cost over $100 million a year.

Why is early childhood the answer? Based on a vague assertion from some unnamed research studies saying early childhood programs save money.

In fact, the studies I've seen suggest these early childhood programs don't have lasting effects and can even be harmful. But let's not let the facts get in the way of what we want to do.

Of course, the answer, according to the story, for the $113 million costs is a statewide, two year early childhood program costing $377 million a year for at risk 3 year olds. So let's spend three times the amount addressing a problem with a program which actually doesn't have long lasting benefits and can be harmful to kids.

According to the story writer, "The moral of the story?" is having folks other than schools foot some of the bill. Why have anybody foot the bill if the programs don't deliver and cost three times the problem? Where is logic in this?

Of course guess what the per year cost of the quality two year program for at risk kids is? $13,00 annually. What you have here is a proposal to pay people to babysit and supervise somebody else's children on a part-time basis.

The real culprit and source of the education problem costs is the breakdown of the family and the fraying of the moral fabric in the lives of kids.

What should the state do? First, realize the answer doesn't ultimately reside in government. Government needs to realize it should do no harm and attempts to take over the responsibility for raising children is not the answer. Second, an easy first step is reforming our no fault divorce system which encourages marriage break-up. (This is an issue of justice which the government has a responsibility to promote.) Third, place marriage strengthening as the center piece of all existing government social initiatives. Fourth, empower parents to take responsibility for educating children via school choice initiatives. Fifth, government officials should use their moral bully pulpits to encourage churches and private groups need to pick up the stack in promoting marriage and intact families.

I think these initiatives will have better results and get to the heart of the matter.

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