Sara Mead: Institutionalizationist And Slayer Of Straw-Men!

Eduwonk is buried under several deadlines, but thankfully Eduwonk compatriot Sara Mead sent along the following missive to entertain and enlighten you…

I was a bit perplexed by Homeschool Legal Defense Association President Michael’s Smith’s Washington Times op-ed arguing against expanding preschool programs and criticizing the movement to make preschool mandatory. I hadn’t a clue who the “mandatory-preschool advocates” to whom Smith referred are, and since I’m PPI’s preschool analyst, this was more than a little embarrassing. Not to worry though, lifelong learning is our thing here at PPI so I immediately set about Googling to find them. If mandatory preschool advocates are as big a threat as Smith claims, it should be easy, right?

Here’s what I found: In 2002, then-Washington, DC, Councilmember Kevin Chavous proposed lowering DC’s compulsory school attendance age to 3. The bill failed. The Illinois Federation of Teachers once passed a resolution calling for mandatory preschool. They didn’t get far either. But, apparently, mandatory preschool is a very hot issue in Malaysia.

That’s about the sum of the mandatory preschool movement. Nationally, only nine states require even kindergarten, let alone preschool. Even the strongest universal preschool advocates—Pre-KNow, Meathead Rob Reiner, the American Federation of Teachers, the Committee for Economic Development—emphasize that such programs should be voluntary. I think so, too, and while PPI staunchly supports expanding access to high quality pre-K education, we think participation in such programs should be left up to parents.

But what I did find was paranoia—loads of it. The same right-wing groups (Eagle Forum, the Family Foundation) that perennially claim to be under attack from liberal public education activists bent on indoctrinating their children into this or that also see a dangerous social engineering scheme in publicly funded preschool. By the logic of the paranoid opponents of universal access to preschool, government funding constitutes an implicit endorsement of “institutionalization” (their preferred term for preschool) and sends a message that parents who don’t send their children to preschool are bad parents. Opponents also argue that universal preschool discourages moms from staying home with kids. (Never mind that 44 percent of children whose moms stay home already attend preschool.) Of course, there is also that perennial favorite of right-and left-wing zealots, the “slippery slope” argument.

Smith cites several dubious studies and expert opinions that say preschool has no benefits and may actually harm children emotionally. Many of these studies conflate preschool and daycare and reflect the poor quality of many current childcare arrangements. Others are based not on evidence but progressive child development theory, in particular the work of Jean Piaget. Although a noted figure in the history of child development theory, Piaget had no access to modern brain research and other scientific evidence that shows children can learn much more, much sooner, than previously believed. My favorite citation, however, comes from an unpublished 1989 lecture by psychologist David A. Scott. He discussed evidence from Soviet Czechoslovakia that children in communist-run compulsory preschool programs fared worse than those cared for at home. Except for preschool, of course, Soviet Czechoslovakia was idyllic and a great roadmap for contemporary U.S. social policy.

I am not a fan of social engineering. I flinch at some of the patriarchal intrusions on poor and immigrant families by the early twentieth century Progressive movement. I’m grateful to have been raised by a stay-at-home mom. But if it’s social engineering to want all parents, if they so choose, to be able to offer their children the kind of preschool enrichment affluent families take for granted, or to want to close the preparation gap between white and minority kindergarteners—which experts estimate accounts for as much as half of the enormous achievement gaps between white and minority high schoolers—then I guess count me in for some publicly funded “institutionalization”…

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