The debate on preschool issues is long overdue. To contribute to that conversation, here are several considerations we feel have been missing from the discussion.

The benefits of pre-kindergarten have not been established for all children.

No statistically reliable study has ever shown that pre-k programs have significant long-term benefits for a diverse group of four-year-olds. After ten years, 300,000 students and $1.15 billion, Georgia’s test scores are unchanged. Even the “spend $1 now on pre-k, save $7.16 later” slogan isn’t applicable to the average child.

Yale’s Ed Ziegler laments this as a transference of findings about seriously at-risk kids to all kids. David Elkind of Tufts University and others go even further, arguing that pre-k can actually be destructive for kids from intact middle-class families. We don’t prescribe radiation or other aggressive therapies for healthy people, neither should intervention be universal, but directed at those in desperate situations.

Parents are the best educators of young children.

The Perry Project, which is cited as evidence for the worth of pre-k programs, was in many ways more about parenting than about programs. To participate in the Perry Project, a family was required to have at least one parent in the home during the day and that parent had to participate in a weekly in-home visit. The presence of the parent plus the in-home training helped the parent become a better teacher.

The results are even better if the parent educates full-time. A first-grade teacher may spend 360 hours on language arts, but the parent who reads to their child typically spends 4,000-6,000 hours on literary activities from birth to age six. That’s why 80% of young mothers told Public Agenda they prefer to stay at home to care for their young children. Public (and specifically tax) policy shouldn’t push our children out of the nest too soon or force both parents to work.

Intervention at the pre-k level treats symptoms.

The broken home is the cause. A truckload of literature suggests that children of two married parents are more academically, economically, physically, emotionally and socially healthy than children of single-parents or cohabiting parents. That is true even with the near “Supermom” and “Superdad” status of so many single parents.

Today in South Carolina, there are private programs promoting intentional fatherhood that are underfunded. Likewise, federal dollars are available right now to our state to promote healthy marriage, but these funds go untapped year after year. We should leverage public and private funds immediately to encourage what little children need most, parents in strong marriages.

Symptoms may need to be treated as well, but we shouldn’t deploy our resources piecemeal.

Award-winning psychiatrist John Bowlby observed that “a home must be very bad before it is bettered by a good institution.” In these homes, parents just cannot carry out their roles as primary educators. We believe when properly defined, current resources are quite substantial to help the severely disadvantaged (Matthew 25:40). Large counties / school districts need some additional support, but most districts, even in many of the plaintiff counties in the Abbeville case, would have extra seats for at-risk four-year-olds if current federal, state and local efforts were coordinated.

Between EIA, First Steps, Head Start, programs for the developmentally challenged, and ABC Child Care vouchers, most of the rural counties that lag behind in performance have the capacity to get the job done. We need to define that small population we wish to serve, focus our efforts and invest existing funding more wisely.

Resources are allocated best when collaboration trumps control.

If we as a state decide to target our most disadvantaged four-year-olds, we should look to idle and underutilized church and community-based facilities and instruction. If it were possible to divide our $103,576,297 estimated annual spending on four-year-old pre-k programs among the 28,000 high-risk four-year-olds (and that number may be overly broad), we could provide $3,699 for each child in a state where faith-based K-5 tuition averages $2,562. Let’s not centralize and control, but collaborate with willing, efficient partners.

Improving education for South Carolina’s very young citizens is at its core all about time, love and attention from a mother and a father committed to each other and to intentional parenting. We should promote that as a society. Failing that gold standard, we should focus our resources, then give churches and communities the first crack at reaching those who need our help

Dr. Oran Smith

Former President & CEO

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