Critics of GOP gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin want to use his spot-on statement about a huge, costly and ineffective government-run preschool program to paint him as being opposed to any and all early childhood education.
Bevin pointed out on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight” during this year’s primary campaign that Head Start—the nation’s largest taxpayer-funded preschool program—“is not working the way we’re doing it.”
That got translated by his detractors—both in the political arena and among some media outlets—as: “Matt Bevin is opposed to early childhood education.”
However, questioning the effectiveness of a program for which American taxpayers shell out $8 billion annually doesn’t automatically stretch into opposition to early childhood education in general.
This illustrates an oft-used strategy by progressives—and not just with political candidates.
If you support giving parents more choices for their children beyond a traditional public school, don’t be surprised if you’re branded: “out to destroy public education.”
Such labeling—intended to protect the status quo and misrepresent new ideas—isn’t limited to education policy.
Those who support giving individual workers the option of choosing whether labor-union membership is best for them are “union busters.”
Those who question the Environmental Protection Agency’s moronic regulations are “for dirty air and contaminated water.”
But what, I wonder, do these critics label those researchers who produce myriad reports indicating that—as Bevin noted—“third grade and above, there is no measurable difference between a child who came through Head Start and a child that did not?”
His is the same conclusion reached by the other side of the political aisle in a 2012 study by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
The Hechinger Report—by no means a right-wing group—notes that only one of 90 different studies examining the effectiveness of the Head Start program met acceptable research standards for scientific rigor.
That study, Hechinger notes—using work done by the technically oriented What Works Clearinghouse—“showed rather disappointing results. It found that Head Start had ‘potentially positive effects’ on general reading achievement and ‘no discernible effects’ on mathematics and social-emotional development for 3-year-old and 4-year-old children.”
At the very least, this is thin evidence to blindly support a huge investment like the $8 billion made annually in Head Start.
We’ve heard lots of clamoring from Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration about expanding state spending on its preschool programs.
Yet even within Kentucky’s borders, there’s reasonable doubt about whether sufficient bang is produced for all of those early childhood bucks.
A stir was generated by a report presented to the Kentucky Board of Education in 2012 showing only 25 percent of the state’s entering kindergartners are ready for school.
Those results were based on preliminary data from a pilot project that tested 34,500—or about two-thirds of children entering kindergarten.
While the report didn’t indicate precisely what proportion of the unprepared students were in early childhood programs, it’s a pretty good bet many were considering around 30,000 children across the commonwealth attend preschool.
It’s not a coincidence that many of those who both attack Bevin and advocate for bigger government early childhood educational programs are adamantly opposed to giving Kentucky parents school choice.
In fact, school-choice opponents’ strategy is one of distraction by making the discussion about Head Start’s funding—or some other financial issue—rather than the educational performance of all children.
“Every single metric that has ever looked at it, including those done by the government itself in order to justify it and those looking at it from the outside trying to justify why it doesn’t work, everyone has come to the same conclusion—that third grade and above, there is no measurable difference between a child who came through Head Start and a child that did not,” Bevin said.
Let me know if you find a single credible study in this entire nation that disagrees.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at email@example.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.