Did you go to preschool? When I was growing up, few kids did. But now there is a new movement that says every child in America should have a chance to start school before kindergarten — at taxpayer expense.
It's part of President Obama's massive spending plans. His "stimulus" bill includes an Early Learning Challenge Grant to encourage states to "Develop a cutting-edge plan to raise the quality of your early learning programs." It's a popular idea. Sixty-seven percent of Americans favor universal pre-K funded by the government. But I doubt that most Americans have thought it through.
Mia Levi has. She told me, "This whole thing is a scam."
Levi runs six preschools. I thought she'd favor the program, since she'd collect easy money from the government.
"I don't want to have to answer to the government," she said in my ABC special "Bailouts and Bull." "Our programs are so far superior."
Universal pre-K would create a single standard for preschools, but why is that a good thing? Why should we think there is one way to do preschool and that government experts know what it is? President Obama doesn't acknowledge what Nobel economist F. A. Hayek taught us: Competition is a discovery process.
Levi has to work hard to improve her schools because she knows that, unlike with government services, parents have options.
"If we didn't do our job, families would go down the street to the next school. Public schools aren't doing their job, and they get to just keep opening their doors. To say that they are the ones to define ... quality is laughable."
As she says, the pre-K movement has the whiff of scam about it. Most American kids already attend preschool. Parents pay for it themselves, and those who can't afford it can get government subsidies or use free programs like Head Start. But under universal pre-K, taxpayers would pay for every child.
"It's a flagrant waste of money," Levi said. "It's as if I went shopping for myself because I needed a dress for a party and I bought a dress for everybody else whether they needed it or not."
But we keep hearing that investment in pre-K will pay off later. Obama says, "For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health costs and less crime."
Those glowing statistics come from tiny studies (58 children) of places like Michigan's Perry Preschool. But those low-income, low-IQ kids got much more than preschool, including after-school tutoring, and their moms and dads got parenting classes.
Lisa Snell, education director of the Reason Foundation, says you can't expect similar results with middle- and higher income children.
In addition, lots of studies say the preschool effect fades. Head Start is revered for raising test scores, but studies show that by grades 3 or 4 those gains vanish.
"They can't tell the difference between the kids that went to Head Start and the kids who didn't," Snell says. "When they compared them to the kids that are disadvantaged that didn't go to Head Start, they can't tell from their test scores which kids had the treatment of Head Start."
There's still another flaw in the program. Some studies have found that too much school may lead to disruptive and aggressive behavior. Libby Doggett, who leads one of the biggest pre-K advocacy groups, concedes that, but claims that "high-quality" government programs benefit children. She said Oklahoma and Georgia have them already.
But those states, despite spending billions of tax dollars on preschool for the past 10 years, have not shown impressive results. Oklahoma's students lost ground to kids from other states.
Doggett replied: "We don't want to just focus on IQ scores. We want to look at how children are doing in their social and emotional, their non-cognitive development."
Please. When the huge government program fails to raise scores, the central planners promise it will help the kids socially?
Give me a break.
ABOUT THE WRITER
John Stossel is co-anchor of ABC News' "20/20" and the author of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity."