Disastrous FAFSA Update a Cautionary Tale Against More Government Involvement in Early Childhood Education and … – Heritage.org

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The U.S. Department of Education is in the midst of a disastrous roll-out of a reworked Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website, where students go to apply for federal financial aid for college. In fact, it’s been so bad that colleges haven’t been able to send out financial aid award notices leaving students uncertain about whereor whetherthey’ll be able to enroll this fall.

Yet proponents of universal preschool want that same federal government that can’t manage a website update to begin providing early childhood education to millions of children across the country.

On April 10, the U.S. Senate’s Joint Economic Committee convened a hearing on “Building Blocks for Success: Investing in Early Childhood Education.” Even though we were witnesses in that hearing, we’re baffled that anyone who sees how badly the federal government has botched financial aid for college students would think, “Let’s get the feds more involved in early childhood education.” 

Beyond incompetence, there are plenty of reasons for the federal government to shy away from preschool. For starters, the rhetoric does not match reality when it comes to the effects of early childhood education. Most of the claimed positive effects come from two extremely small programs that enrolled fewer than 60 children in the 1960s and 1970s.

>>> Biden Botched Financial Aid Rollout. And It’s Parents and Students Who Are Paying the Price.

Advocates who support taxpayer spending on early childhood education have extrapolated the results from those tiny programs, nearly seven decades old, to make fantastic claims about the benefits of preschool.

But larger-scale programs haven’t replicated those results. While some show initial positive gains for students as they move from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten, those results fade within the first few years.

Even so-called “gold standard” preschool programs have produced worse results for participants. For example, in January 2022, researchers from Vanderbilt University released a study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K initiative, which found children who participated in the program experienced significant negative effects on academic achievement and behavior compared with children in the control group. 

Harms included worse academic performance and a higher likelihood of having discipline issues and being referred for special education services. The results shocked Dale Farran, one of the lead researchers. “At least for poor children, it turns out that something is not better than nothing,” she told The Hechinger Report.

Unfortunately, Congress always wants to do “something.” Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), after claiming that the absence of federally funded universal preschool was evidence of “structural sexism” in Congress, asserted that spending other people’s money is “the function of Congress.” But unlike national defense, which Ms. Porter invoked to make her argument, preschool is not an enumerated power of the federal government. And the results of Washington’s efforts to date on the pre-k front show why that’s the case.

The federal Head Start program, which launched in the summer of 1965 and embodied the preschool component of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, continues today. Annual Head Start appropriations total $12.2 billion, equating to more than $12,000 per child—exceeding the cost of childcare in most states, despite providing fewer hours of care during the day.

A randomized controlled trial evaluation of Head Start conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the program, found it had little to no impact on the parenting practices of parents, or the cognitive, social-emotional, and health outcomes of participants. Not only were the effects of Head Start on children’s language and literacy development modest while enrolled in the program, but any gains “rapidly dissipated in elementary school,” according to the study’s authors.

But it’s not just the lack of sustained academic gains. The large market distortion introduced by government preschool and childcare crowds out the private provision of care and limits choices for families. As Canadian families know all too well, after the introduction of universal childcare in Quebec in the late 1990s, privately funded childcare arrangements all but disappeared, having been squeezed out of the market by the heavily subsidized program. Participation also worsened children’s “soft skills,” as seen in negative later life outcomes. 

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Although we don’t see sustained academic gains from early childhood education, and there are problems of fade-out and crowd-out, it’s also true that some working families need to take advantage of the custodial care that early childhood education and care provide. So what is the best way to provide the greatest number of early education and care options for families, who have a variety of preferences for childcare when their children are very young? As noted in testimony:

More than half (56%) of women with children would prefer to stay at home and care for their family, according to a 2015 Gallup survey. A plurality of Americans (44%) say it is ideal for one parent to stay at home when their children are young and another 36% say one parent should stay home at least part-time, according to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center. Pew also found in a prior survey that among women with children under the age of 18, a full 67 percent would prefer just part-time work or full-time homemaking. Among married mothers, that rises to 76 percent. Just 23 percent of married mothers list working full-time as their ideal scenario. However, some families need or want to use paid childcare. Even then, full-time center-based care comes in last among families’ preferred arrangements, with just 11 percent of working mothers saying the use of center-based care was best for young children.

Yet the push for universal preschool and daycare taxes those same mothers to pay for an arrangement counter to their preferences, reducing the amount of money they have to spend on their own children.

Rather than creating a new federal program that fails to meet the preferences of most families while raising taxes on them, Congress should take a step back. Phase out spending on most federal preschool and childcare programs to make space for private options and in‐home care. Allow eligible families to take existing funding to private providers of choice. And remove unnecessary federal regulations that prevent an affordable early education market from thriving in D.C., something state legislatures should mimic in their respective state markets.

The last thing Congress should do is repeat the disastrous mess it made in higher education in the early childhood education and care sector.

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