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Commissioners Consider “The Life of Julia”


According to the report’s executive summary, “High-quality preschool programs help save money over the long term, because they reduce high school dropout rates, special/remedial education costs, discipline issues, medical costs, as well as costs for law enforcement, courts, and incarceration. Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman estimates that for every $1 spent on high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, communities save $7 in long-term costs for things like remediation, social supports, or criminal justice.”

What’s more, “High-quality preschool programs help produce a better educated, more stable workforce and safe, vibrant communities that can attract top talent and consumers. Economists at the Federal Reserve found that compared to other kinds of state investment that are considered as ‘economic development,’ investment in early education yields a far greater return.” The report and presenters cited a “preponderance of data,” and consultant Leslie Anderson said a hundred studies conducted over the last twenty-five years bore out the same conclusions.

Actually, not that many studies have been conducted that track the progress of children from preschool to adult life. The two that are frequently cited by advocates for more preschool followed children who came from low-income families or were otherwise considered at-risk. One was the Perry Preschool Project, which began following 123 students in Michigan in the 1960s. The other, North Carolina’s Abecedarian Project, started a decade later and tracked 111. Both studies were referenced in the report to the commissioners, and both are criticized for studying a statistically-invalid sample, inadequate randomization of data, lack of replication, and failure to outsource evaluations to independent parties.

The two studies most often cited by people who think government should think twice before rushing headlong into subsidizing universal preschool are the Head Start Impact Study, conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services, and a study of Tennessee preschools, conducted by Vanderbilt University. The former tracked 5000 students, the latter 3000, and both found most academic and social advantages attained from preschool had statistically zeroed out by third grade. Their findings have been lauded by both the left-leaning Brookings Institution and the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

While there appears to be consensus that preschool is great for giving children opportunities to socialize; particularly with peers of different backgrounds, and that graduates of preschool initially have better vocabularies and have enjoyed better nutrition than the average kid who didn’t get to attend; the Tennessee study found preschool graduates performing worse in literacy, language, and math by second-grade. Other studies find children lose their curiosity. This is believed to be the consequence of steeping children in too much pedagogy too soon, burning them out by third grade. Whereas left to their own devices, normal children will be “getting into stuff;” some studies have found children in preschool spend 25 percent of their schooldays transitioning between activities, doing things like forming a line to go to the lavatories.

The scholars who are critiquing each other’s findings all assure they do so to promote the best interests of children, and they all agree that high-quality daycare, like that provided in Boston, has great outcomes. Oft-cited author Erika Christakis explains, “The best preschool programs share several common features: they provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports learning processes and a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers who use what are known as reflective teaching practices.” Boston spends more than twice the national average, per pupil, to achieve this; the moral of the story being: invest heavily or not at all.

Members of the ABPPC (Asheville-Buncombe Preschool Planning Collaborative) understand this. Describing NC Pre-K as “a ‘gold standard’ for preschool quality [with] a proven track record for effectiveness;” they would like to make that program available to more students. Standing in the way, though, are the high costs with insufficient subsidies and a shortage of licensed teachers. These challenges are compounded by findings that quality is more difficult to maintain as systems scale-up. So, ABPPC members seek to at least establish an arrangement that “should be rooted in teacher-child relationships, leverage strong collaborations, be trauma-informed and resiliency focused, employ a flexible and diverse evidence-informed program, and take a holistic approach.” The plan further envisions symbiotic capacity-building for priority services like guarding against food insecurity.

To gauge local demand, the ABPPC conducted a survey of over 600 parents and found 91 percent wanted preschool. “More than two-thirds” wanted it so they could work, and “nearly 18%” wanted it so they could attend school. 71.5 percent said their children were not in preschool because it was too expensive; 42.5 percent, because they could not find an opening. To begin satisfying demand, the ABPPC proposed spending $19,159,022 plus about $24,000 in startup costs for each new facility. “The cost for full program administration, implementation, recruitment and outreach, single portal of entry applications, shared services, monitoring, and formal evaluations are not included in this estimate.” That much could provide programs for 70 percent of 4- and 5-year-olds and 64 percent of 3-year-olds who would not otherwise enroll in preschool. Per-pupil spending might run around $6000, or half what Boston spends.

Scaling up preschool is expected to increase demand. One not-so-vicious cycle would start with the direct or indirect increase in taxes. If the county assumes full responsibility, program costs would run hundreds of dollars per year per property owner. This could marginalize some parents into needing preschool or qualifying for subsidies, necessitating even more funding to cover the new enrollees. One potential “unintended consequence” the ABPPC mentions is that preschool funding would come at the expense of programs already provided for children in the target age group.

Compounding the problem, the ABPPC paper called for better compensation for instructors, noting, “In NC in 2016, 39 percent of early educators qualified for some form of public assistance.” Jennifer Bosworth of AB Tech told the commissioners how some of her students lived in their cars, were food-insecure, or were survivors of trauma and abuse. Some were single parents or had jobs requiring them to spend thirteen years getting a two-year degree in a field where they’d be disparaged as “babysitters” while earning only $8-10/hour. The paper called for “professionalizing” the career, so costs will grow, and demand will increase as good wages serve to recruit otherwise stay-at-home parents.

Universal preschool is not recommended. Fifteen years after its introduction to Quebec, almost all private providers, unable to compete with government, had exited the market. The program was also credited with increasing the number of mothers working outside the home by 14.5 percent. The children who, but for the program would not have had access, were reported to have been more anxious and had committed more crimes than researchers projected they would have otherwise.

Critics have charged universal pre-K is likely to put those who need it most even more at risk. If funds are channeled only at the neediest families, a “hollow middle” will be created for those too poor to pay and too rich for subsidy. But if everybody is subsidized, the system becomes middle-class welfare. Worse, it is likely to mirror public schools. So, preschoolers in districts that offer abysmal educational settings will at best learn skills too advanced for out-of-control elementary schools, and at worst enroll in the dysfunction sooner. The public moneys could be better spent cleaning up the K-12 stewardship with which government is already entrusted.

Lastly, a monopoly on preschool governance, equating to an absence of choice, feeds fears of nationalist indoctrination of young, impressionable minds. After all, federal funding will preclude children singing “Jesus loves me! This I know.” Preschool, like other social service programs, crowds parental responsibility out of childrearing. Some advocates for traditional families have argued it is the absence of paternal role models who have gotten their act together and stayed out of prison that contributes more to delinquency than the absence of preschools.

I’ll Have the Whoops!

Following the preschool conversations, the commissioners previewed a portal currently being designed to put information online but buried, at the fingertips of members of the public. There was a general sense that the portal was too geeky and that it should be focus-grouped before going live. But the most remarkable moment was when Performance Management Director Eric Hardy was flipping through links. Commissioner Joe Belcher asked him to back up. The amended budget for the 2014 budget was $425 million, but the initial budget was $337 million. Moving on to 2015, a similarly drastic misalignment was disclosed. This was news to Belcher.

Finance Director Tim Flora explained the difference was due to budget amendments approved throughout the year, and capital project costs being listed as lump sums in the year in which they’re approved, when they will actually be spread over years. The commissioners and staff agreed the portal should give a better explanation of the discrepancies. Commissioner Mike Fryar noted the budget had increased by $100 million in the five years he has served on the board.

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