Taking the Federal Government to Kindergarten

Education reporter Sam Dillon made Wednesday's front page with "Obama's $10 Billion Promise Stirs Hope in Early Education," which took to heart the old liberal cliché that massive government spending on children is simply a wise investment in the future and a better deal than building more prisons.

Dillon's chosen "experts" looked down their credentialed liberal noses on the "fantastically fragmented," "patchwork quilt" of American preschool education (translation: states being allowed to run their own schools, as opposed to having the federal government supervise). Dillon arguedthat resistance from conservatives "has diminished in recent years," which is perhaps his excuse for failing to quote a single opponent of more pre-school spending by governments.

Driving the movement is research by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, James J. Heckman, and others showing that each dollar devoted to the nurturing of young children can eliminate the need for far greater government spending on remedial education, teenage pregnancy and prisons.

Now that new initiatives seem likely, experts are debating how best to improve America's early childhood system, which they call fantastically fragmented, unconscionably underfinanced and bureaucratically bewildering. Some hesitate to use the word "system" at all.

"It's a patchwork quilt, a tossed salad, a nonsystem," said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a group that presses for universal, publicly financed prekindergarten.


Mr. Obama's platform, which Mr. Duncan helped write, emphasizes extending care to infants and toddlers as well, and it makes helping poor children a priority. It would also provide new federal financing for states rolling out programs to serve young children of all incomes.

Outright opponents are fewer, and certainly less influential than they once were. In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon vetoed a bill that would have underwritten child care for everyone, arguing that the bill "would commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach."

For years after that, conservatives blocked many early childhood initiatives, but resistance has diminished in recent years.

The last major federal initiative came in 1994, when the Clinton administration worked with Congress to create Early Head Start, which serves pregnant women and children from birth to age 3. Since then, states have largely carried the ball.

Dillon pushed the "it's not excessive spending, just sound investment" argument when discussing Educare, a nationwide public-private consortium of child centers:

Educare costs about $18,000 a child, roughly the annual tuition of an elite Manhattan nursery school. By contrast, spending per child in state prekindergarten programs ranges from $10,494 in New Jersey to $2,335 in Florida.

Whether the top figures sound outrageous or like sound investments depends on how much one believes the research that shows large paybacks for the careful nurturing of poor children.

One much-cited study is of a preschool program that offered high-quality services to a few dozen black children in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the early 1960s at a two-year cost per child of about $15,000. The study found that the investment, 40 years later, had rendered economic returns to society of some $244,000 per child, much of that in savings from reduced criminal activity. Critics have challenged the findings, in part because of the small number of children involved.