Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Generalizing early childhood education 

Readers in Minnesota will see some familiar themes in Wendy McElroy's article today on the push in California for universal preschool. (h/t: reader jw)
If successful, California's high-profile campaign may set a standard for other states. [Rob] Reiner's proposal is to fund universal preschool through a 1.7 percent increase in taxes on annual incomes of $400,000+ for individuals, $800,000+ for married couples; this would generate an estimated $2.4 billion per year. Attendance would be voluntary.
As you might guess, some skepticism arises from the use of an income tax on very high incomes. (The fact that it's pitched by Rob Reiner probably doesn't help, either.) But it also comes from a very disputed RAND study that claims the program pays for itself. The research that's out there, however, says the benefits of universal preschool on cognitive or social scales fall to zero as the child continues through the education system, perhaps disappearing as early as second grade.

The familiarity to Minnesota readers should come from the leadership taken by two researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Art Rolnick (who Strom declares makes me only the second-smartest economist in Minnesota) and Rob Grunewald. Their work makes a case for targeted preschool towards disadvantaged children, and not necessarily to improve cognition. As this interview with Nobel laureate James Heckman discusses, the gains may be more towards encouraging behaviors that improve life success, like "motivation, self-control and time preference." I'm often caught telling my classes that the most important thing you teach your children is delayed gratification, and how to do that by increasing a child's incentives to save. It's one of the reasons I support teaching economics to children from quite young ages -- I'm not interested in them knowing supply and demand, but I am interested in getting the concept of constrained optimization across. Kids are naturally maximizers, but they have trouble seeing constraints.

At any rate, the Rolnick-Grunewald work has moved to policy stages, and their proposals are different both in seeking targeted programs rather than Reiner's universal proposal, and by seeking public-private partnerships for provision and funding. The plan includes tuition-plus scholarships for parents to be able to choose between public and private early childhood development programs (approved by a public-private board), with a mentoring program or home visits. I like this program, but it has potential dealbreakers for the education borg because it uses a voucher-type system and for the strong parental control types like McElroy.
This is the great danger: the presumption that government can raise children better than parents. If universal preschool is voluntary, then it may merely create another massive and ultra-expensive bureaucracy that accomplishes little.

If it is compulsory, then universal preschool will extend the government's usurpation of parenthood so that all 3- and 4-year-olds are under state supervision.
I do not think she would be mollified by the public-private board.