Commentary: Let’s Grow Kids, or Let’s Grow Government?

Lawmakers recently passed a bill that begins the process for a major expansion of state-subsidized childcare for birth to five-year-olds rolled out over the next few years. The new law, crafted and pushed by the special interest group Let’s Grow Kids, could have major negative consequences for children, families, and taxpayers.

Let’s Grow Kids’ goals are, in a nutshell: 1) Capping payments to ensure that no family pays more than 10% of their income for childcare. This sounds nice but reduces the amount of money entering the system. 2) Establishing a central bureaucracy and infrastructure to oversee the program. This, of course, will require more money coming into the system. And 3) Ensuring that childcare workers are “compensated on par with their colleagues in similar professions” (read, “unionized public school teachers”), which will require a lot more money coming into the system.

You see the problem here. Reducing revenues while increasing costs creates a revenue gap. This is where the taxpayers come in! Let’s Grow Kids’ bill calls for the revenue questions – amounts and methods -- to be addressed in 2023 (surely to put off the inevitable sticker shock), but earlier estimates range from the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Where will that money come from? A substantial increase in property taxes is one option. A new payroll tax would be another. Expanding the sales tax to cover services and essential goods. Certainly, there will be calls to “tax the rich!” A combination of all might be necessary to cover such a large amount.

But, say the proponents, it’s for the kids so we should suck it up and pony up, right? Wrong.

Programs like this (large scale, “universal,” and for majority mainstream populations) are not beneficial to most children. Studies, such as those of the Quebec universal pre-k program (2019) and Tennessee’s voluntary pre-k program (2015) actually show long-term harm to children who took part in state-run universal pre-k programs as opposed to control group children who didn’t. Early academic benefits in kindergarten “fade out” by first or second grade, and by third grade non-participants in pre-k are generally outperforming their pre-k peers. Other studies, such as the Head Start Impact Study (2010) also record the quick fade out phenomenon of such programs.

A comprehensive longitudinal study from 1991 to 2006 and involving thousands of children  done by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) shows what we all know instinctively to be true: the best developmental situation for a child birth to five, except in extreme situations, is with their mother.

The study concluded, “The amount of time that children spend in child care from infancy through age 4½ is not related to their cognitive outcomes prior to school entry. Children who spend many hours in child care, however, show somewhat more behavior problems and more episodes of minor illness than those in fewer hours of child care.” (Page 17) Moreover, the more time a child spends in childcare (not a significant factor in wellbeing) the less attentive mothers tended to be when the kids were in their care (a very significant factor).

And, “Many family features are more strongly and more consistently linked to child development outcomes than are child care features for children up to age 4½ (and even into kindergarten). The following characteristics predicted children’s cognitive/language and social development: parents’ education, family income, and two-parent family compared to single-parent family; mothers’ psychological adjustment and sensitivity; and the social and cognitive quality of home environment.” (Page 25)

So, if we really care about kids and improving their current wellbeing and future prospects, policies that 1) maximize time in a family setting and, 2) ensure that setting is intact, stable and nurturing is where we should be directing our efforts and resources. Pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into over-priced, over-regulated pre-k programs is at best a waste of time and money.

In fact, Vermont’s own “Prekindergarten Education Study: Interim Report” (2019, page 30) noted, “In studies of state-funded preK programs, most analyses have failed to find a pattern between preK teacher credentials and students’ school readiness skills.” A subtle admission that Vermont’s early childcare policy – require and subsidize only “highly qualified” pre-k teachers -- increases cost and decreases the supply for no discernable benefit.

In Vermont, our experience bears out anecdotally what the above studies point to empirically. We have been expanding so-called “high quality” government funded and regulated pre-k programs in terms of cost and scope since 2007 and student test results downstream from that point have consistently declined. We also hear from educators that behavioral and mental health issues among children are increasing. Childcare costs are rising, and availability is down. Now the people who caused these problems want hundreds of millions of dollars to do more of the same.   

-- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.


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