Pre-K? No Way

Among some conservative intellectuals and pundits, nothing says “government overreach” like public education spending.

This morning in the pages of National Review Online, Michelle Malkin spits some bile at President Obama’s plans to invest in universal early-childhood education.

As have other conservatives such as Lindsey Burke and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation, Malkin denounces federally sponsored pre-kindergarten schooling in the harshest terms.

Malkin argues that the vaunted promises of universal pre-k don’t stand up to intelligent scrutiny.  As have other fed-skeptics, Malkin seems to mix up a few federal reports.  She refers second-hand to a journalist’s citation of a 2010 study of pre-k’s long-term effectiveness.  If she really wanted to bash federally sponsored universal pre-k, though, she would have been wiser to cite the Department of Health and Human Services 2012 follow-up to that study.  The 2010 study suggested that Head Start programs had a significant positive impact on children.  The 2012 follow-up, in contrast, implied that those positive effects dissipated by third grade (roughly age 7/8).  The numbers seem pretty clear: universal pre-k is not the simple social and educational panacea that some progressives had hoped for.

But more than just these policy arguments, Malkin thinks federally sponsored universal pre-k has a bigger moral problem.  As she puts it,

Let’s set all of this science aside for the moment. There’s a bigger elephant in the room. As I’ve pointed out for years, these cradle-to-grave government-education/day-care services encourage drive-through, drop-off parenting. Subsidizing this phenomenon cheats children, undermines family responsibilities, and breeds resentment among childless workers who are forced to pay for costly social services.

Perhaps this moral dilemma is the reason why Malkin is not overly concerned with the social-science exactitude of her sources.  Her argument goes like this: federally sponsored pre-k doesn’t work.  And even if it did, it would still lead our society in morally monstrous directions.



Do Conservatives Want the Government to Tell Americans What to Do?

Preschool or Parents?

That’s the question education pundits from the Heritage Foundation have been asking lately.  To a non-conservative outsider like me, this question raises key questions about the goals of conservative education policy.  It seems as if Heritage Foundation writers want both a less intrusive government and a more intrusive government.

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that there are different sorts of conservatives, all of whom may have very different visions of the good society, good education, and the proper role of government.  I’ve read the work of historians such as George Nash who have chronicled the post-World War II tensions between libertarians and social conservatives.  But in this case, it seems as if one conservative organization—a small-government conservative organization—is calling for a big-government solution to education dilemmas.

Here is the recent confounding case: In light of President Obama’s recent call for universal, government-funded preschool, Heritage writers have renewed their push for a different vision.

Lindsey Burke and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation insist that government-funded schooling is not the effective or ethical way to improve school achievement.  The obvious answer, Burke and Sheffield write, is to improve families.

They cite research to prove that programs such as Head Start have not been effective.[1]

They also note studies that tie school achievement to stable family structures.  As Burke and Sheffield argue,

 “A stable family, with married parents, provides the best foundation for a child’s academic success. Children raised in intact families are more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to attend and complete college than their peers raised in single-parent or blended families[30] They also score higher on reading and math, and exhibit fewer behavioral problems in school[31] A stable family also prevents a variety of other risk factors that would derail a child’s future success[32]

“However, over 40 percent of children are born outside marriage in America today. These figures are much higher among minorities: 72 percent among African Americans and 53 percent among Hispanics, while 29 percent among whites. Unwed childbearing is the greatest driver of child poverty today. Children in single-parent families are nearly six times as likely to be poor compared to their peers born in married-parent homes[33] Additionally, children in non-intact families have poorer academic performance and are at greater risk for dropping out of school, becoming antisocial and delinquent, and parenting a child outside marriage. These outcomes persist even after controlling for income.34” [N.b., there was no link in original for note 34. It referred readers to the same source as note 33.]

In this excerpt, Burke and Sheffield refer to three earlier Heritage-Foundation research articles: see here, here, and here.  I followed up on those sources, and found that the research came largely from peer-reviewed academic journals such as Journal of Marriage & Family and Social Forces.  (Without a library membership, it can be difficult to access these sources.  However, most public libraries have an EBSCO-or-similar database subscription that will allow readers access to these small-circulation academic journals.)

One conclusion that could be drawn from this is that the government needs to encourage families to stay together.  The public-policy goal would be obvious: if intact families improve school performance, then the government has a compelling interest in promoting stable families.

Burke and Sheffield avoid that conclusion.  Instead, they suggest that government should eliminate or reform Head Start, stop mandating government preschool, and reform existing preschool programs before expanding into new ones.

But other Heritage voices have taken a different approach.  Robert Rector, in 2012 a Senior Research Fellow in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation, argued—in a study cited by Burke and Sheffield—that government should indeed engage in what Rector called a

broad campaign of public education in low-income areas. This campaign should be similar in scope to current efforts to convince youth of the importance of staying in school or to inform the public about the health risks of smoking. While the costs of such an effort would be small, its impact could be considerable.”

Rector also suggests concrete policy suggestions to strengthen families, such as increasing the tax benefits to married couples with children.

I honestly don’t mean to be snarky when I ask this next question; I am truly confused.  Do small-government conservatives such as Heritage’s Robert Rector really want the government to tell people how to regulate their intimate lives?

Heritage’s Derrick Morgan offered what seems to me an awkward patch of these conflicting sentiments a few months ago.  Small government was the answer, Morgan wrote.  But smaller government must also promote “traditional values” as part of its goal to shrink its own purview.

When it comes to education policy, this just doesn’t add up.  Small-government goals of privatized education, smaller government-funded programs, and fewer government education standards seem consistent.  Even if I don’t agree with them, I can see their logic.  But I don’t understand how Heritage’s conservative thinkers connect these goals with a simultaneous government intrusion into the most private, intimate decisions Americans make.

Hostile critics, I think, would assume that Heritage wants to impose government mandates on poor and powerless Americans, while allowing richer and more powerful citizens to enjoy freedom from government interference.  That seems a little simplistic, especially for the sophisticated thinkers preferred by the Heritage Foundation.

But is it true?  Does the Heritage Foundation suffer from—at best—confused ideology about education?  Or, at worst, is Heritage cynically promoting intrusive government for the poor, and small government for the rich?



[1] Here I think Burke and Sheffield need to be more careful.  The reference they cite was actually to a 2010 study, one that reports significant positive effects of 3- and 4-year-old Head Start problems.  But from the text of their article, I gather the authors meant to reference a more recent 2012 follow-up, in which few long-term differences were found between children who attended Head Start and those who did not.

Conservatives and the Common Core

What do conservatives think about the emerging Common Core State Standards?

As with any question, ask a hundred conservatives and you’ll likely get a hundred different answers.
However, some distinct themes have emerged in recent months.

First, many conservative politicians and activists object to the Common Core’s implications for the creeping expansion of government.  Some insist that the standards add another layer of inaccessible, distant, controlling, expensive central control.

Second, conservatives object that the new national standards chip away at parental control of children’s education.  With greater central control, parents and responsive local governments will lose that much more ability to control directly what goes in their local public schools.

Both of these are storied conservative protests against the trends in public education.

Before we examine these themes and their histories, let’s look at the CCSS themselves.  So far, forty-five states, plus the District of Columbia and Department of Defense schools have adopted these standards.  Supporters of the CCSS insist these are not imposed by the federal government, but rather created jointly by state education officials.  The reasons for such standards are many, according to supporters.  In the words of the CCSS Initiative,

“High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations that are aligned to the expectations in college and careers. The standards promote equity by ensuring all students, no matter where they live, are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad. Unlike previous state standards, which were unique to every state in the country, the Common Core State Standards enable collaboration between states on a range of tools and policies.”    

Conservatives are not the only ones to dispute these claims.  Progressive critics (see one example here) often lament the new standards’ failure to consider adequately individual student situations.  Some progressives call the standards a greedy corporate power grab.  Others lament the goal of squeezing all young minds into a procrustean bed of regurgitative multiple-choice testing instead of pursuing the more difficult goal of authentic learning for real students.  Alfie Kohn, for instance, insisted that national standards would “squeeze the life out of classrooms” by mandating one-size-fits-all education, dictated by self-seeking corporate interests.

When conservative activists and pundits critique the CCSS, it is usually on different grounds.  Writing for the Heritage Foundation, for example, Lindsey Burke warned, “The push for centralized control over what every child should learn has never had more momentum.”  CCSS, which Burke called “national standards,” represented a “challenge to educational freedom in America.”  Implementation of the standards would be expensive, Burke pointed out.  Even worse, these standards reversed the proper structure of education.  Instead of more and more central control, Burke argued, “Education reform should give control over education to those closest to students.”

The Heritage Foundation’s Rachel Sheffield praised state lawmakers who pushed to exit the CCSS.  In Indiana, for instance, conservative state lawmakers have proposed a bill to put the CCSS on hold.  One of the requirements of Indiana’s Senate Bill 193, for instance, will be to include parent members on the standards committee.  Another will be to allow any parent to challenge their children’s standard-based high-stakes test results.

These themes—federal overreach and parental control—have long been central to conservative educational activism.

As we’ve noted, agitation against federal intrusion into the local politics of education has been an important element of conservative educational activism since at least the 1940s.  Though it might come as a surprise to some, before the 1940s many conservatives endorsed increased centralization of education policy, as Douglas Slawson has noted in his excellent book The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932.

The second conservative worry about CCSS also has a long history.  Conservative pundits have argued for decades that parents need more control over their children’s education.  Back in the 1960s, conservative educational leader Max Rafferty insisted, “Children do not belong to the state. They do not belong to us educators, either. They belong to their parents and to nobody else.  And don’t you forget it.”  (Source: Rafferty, On Education, pg. 9)

Note one protester's button: "Parent Power"

Note one protester’s button: “Parent Power”

These conservative concerns spanned the country and the decades.  As historian Ron Formisano noted in his landmark 1991 history of Boston disputes over forced busing, parents insisted on their fundamental rights to determine their own children’s educational careers.  As anti-busing leader Louise Hicks fumed, “If under a court order a child can be forcibly taken from his parents into unfamiliar, often hostile neighborhoods, then we shall have opened a pandora’s box of new, unlimited government powers” (pg. 192).

Similarly, President Reagan insisted in 1983, “I believe that parents, not Government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children.  Parental authority is not a right conveyed by the state; rather, parents delegate to their elected school board representatives and State legislators the responsibility for their children’s schooling.”  (Source: Catherine Lugg, For God and Country, pg. 136).

Across the spectrum of conservative belief and activism, we hear similar echoes.  In 1989, for instance, creationist leader Ken Ham warned that “Most parents have left the training of their children to the church, school or college.”  No wonder, Ham argued, that children embraced anti-God theologies.

So when conservatives in 2013 warn that CCSS will undermine parental control, they draw on a rich tradition of conservative thought and activism.  Schools must remain on a tight leash, many conservatives have insisted over the years.  If allowed too much power, centralizing educational authorities will take over.