Wednesday, October 12, 2011

As Oklahoma races to the cradle, Heritage Foundation analyst warns of risks

"Tennessee will not apply for up to $60 million in onetime Race to the Top funds for early childhood education," The Commercial Appeal reports today.
"We want to be very careful in the current fiscal environment not to take on additional activities we can't sustain financially, " [Commissioner of Education Kevin] Huffman said. ... Instead, through a partnership with Vanderbilt University, Tennessee is researching the effectiveness of its current investment before adding more, Huffman said. 

Meanwhile, Oklahoma is applying for this Race to the Cradle grant, and over at CapitolBeatOK Patrick McGuigan reports ("Heritage Foundation analyst warns of risks in taking federal education grant dollars") on his conversation with researcher Lindsey Burke, who was in Oklahoma City last week. Burke said,

It's still to be seen what new requirements or costs will result from participation in the ELC [Early Learning Challenge] grant. But federal dollars typically come with federal strings and reporting requirements, which can create added expenses and headaches for states.

The Obama administration's ultimate goal is to encourage states to implement universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children, regardless of family income. But state preschool is a questionable investment for several reasons. Fade-out is a common phenomenon with preschool in general, with benefits dissipating by third grade. And, a study by the RAND Corporation found that preschool has few, if any, long-term benefits for middle- and upper-income children.

Oklahoma has been offering all 4-year-old children the opportunity to attend taxpayer-funded preschool since 1998. Oklahoma spent $139 million on early education in 2008, and spends more than $7,400 per child in preschool.

Yet, despite this expansive growth in state preschool at considerable taxpayer expense, Oklahoma has not seen improvements in academic achievement as a result. In fact, Oklahoma's 4th grade reading scores have declined since 1998 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While numerous factors influence NAEP scores, if state-funded universal preschool was producing all of the benefits proponents claim, it would likely be evident in 4th grade reading scores.

It's theoretically possible that Oklahoma could be denied the federal grant, though it is highly unlikely given that prominent Obama fundraiser George Kaiser visited the White House 16 times (to discuss "early childhood education," et al.) and also appeared on the platform with Secretary Duncan and Secretary Sebelius when this grant competition was unveiled. If Oklahoma does receive the grant, Burke says it is "certainly a legitimate concern" that federal regulation of Oklahoma's private providers could follow.

Oklahoma parents want and deserve preschool choices. Regrettably, this federal grant -- like other attempts to nationalize education policy -- could prove hostile not only to federalism, but to school choice.

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