Sunday, June 18, 2006

Common ground on preschool?

[This column by Brandon Dutcher appears today in The Oklahoman.]

Many Oklahomans believe it's a good idea for the government to provide universal preschool for 4-year-olds. Others (myself included) disagree. Nonetheless, it may be possible for us to find some common ground. It's worth a try.

In 2000, the Governor's Task Force on Early Childhood Education offered several proposals designed to help families make "their own informed and responsible choices" regarding the education of their preschool children.

"Parents are the first and best teachers," task force member Patrice Douglas told me recently. Douglas -- a mother, child advocate, and now an executive at SpiritBank in Edmond -- simply wants parents to be able to do what's best for their particular children.

I agree, and I would suggest that government should empower parents to make "their own informed and responsible choices" regarding preschool. After all, just because the government provides preschool education doesn't mean the government has to produce all of it.

We already see this principle at work in other areas in Oklahoma. For example, the government provides daycare subsidies to parents, but the parents choose among private daycare providers. The government provides Medicaid coverage, but patients choose among private health-care providers. The government provides college tuition grants, many of which can be used at private colleges and universities.

So let's apply this principle to preschool. After all, many public schools don't have enough space. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, some Oklahoma school districts collaborate with daycare centers to serve a share of Oklahoma's preschool children.

Meanwhile, many excellent private preschools have plenty of space, thanks in part to declining enrollment fueled by the government's preschool monopoly (economists call it "crowding out").

"The physical constraints of many public schools and the fiscal constraints of many state and local governments have forced advocates for increased public investment in early education to compromise with their legislative opponents in nearly every state by supporting the use of public funds for these young children to attend private schools," according to the Alliance for School Choice. Indeed, "in the last two years, many of the states embracing greater public support for early education have chosen to allow for parental choice through vouchers or tax credits."

The time has come for that sort of compromise here in Oklahoma. Oklahoma parents should receive a tax credit for educational expenses incurred in private preschool programs or home schools. Moreover, we should copy Pennsylvania and enact a tax credit for donations to school tuition organizations supporting the education of preschoolers.

Not only is this good policy, it's also good politics. A statewide survey conducted in January by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates showed that a preschool-choice tax credit is quite popular among Oklahoma voters, with 56 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed. Oklahoma Republicans like the idea (63 percent to 31 percent), as do Oklahoma Democrats (53 percent to 38 percent).

So let's increase preschool funding, but also give parents more options. How's that for common ground?