For many education reformers, the next big thing is universal public preschool — adding two whole new public school grades to the 13 from kindergarten to Grade 12. Big indeed, amounting to a 15 percent increase in public school spending, the largest category in state-local government budgets.
So, the multibillion-dollar question: Is it a good idea? Remember, government-funded preschool (Head Start) was launched for poor children to prepare them for formal schooling. Interestingly, universal preschool would derail that goal: If formal school started two years earlier, absorbing Head Start in the process, wouldn't poor kids arrive "unprepared" for now-formal pre-kindergarten? Wouldn't we have to institute Head Start for poor 1- and 2-year-olds?
In recent years, a second preschool mission has developed: as women have joined the workforce, the need has expanded for daytime custodianship of young children so parents can work. This is a genuine need, but it is not an educational need. It does not suggest the need for, or the efficacy of, a rigorous educational effort for non-poor children at this age level — and virtually no research has been conducted on this score.
Nevertheless, this unnecessary and, in important ways, counterproductive push for universal preschool is visible in current policy initiatives in Connecticut.
Connecticut has two major preschool programs that follow the two established purposes of government-funded preschool. The Care 4 Kids program provides more than $100 million in funding for daytime custodial service for about 20,000 lower-income kids, so their parents can work. The more rigorous School Readiness program, where Connecticut spends about $85 million, or more per pre-kindergarten child than 48 other states, provides the classic "head start" for about 7,000 poor 4-year olds. Total state preschool spending is about $225 million. A large amount, but not enormous — yet.
Not yet, but very soon.
First, preschool workers are being transformed from nurturing caregivers into highly trained educators under a phase-in of state law requiring a four-year college degree, something the overwhelming majority of current workers lack — and something the state will, and should, pay for if it is instituting the requirement after the fact for existing workers.
Second, in an act of questionable constitutionality, the governor issued an executive order last fall under which 4,000 day-care workers have now been unionized so that they can "explore opportunities to increase wages and benefits through the Care 4 Kids program."
These two initiatives will increase future spending by multiples, not by percentages: $225 million will soon become $450 million and so on.
This giant leap in spending will bring Connecticut preschool to a tipping point, one where the general populace, which is not receiving state-funded preschool services, will demand equity. After all, programs for the disadvantaged can only be embellished so much before they have a perverse reverse effect: giving the beneficiaries an advantage over non-beneficiaries, who become ever more burdened by the taxes required to fund the benefit.
Non-beneficiaries will either rise up in opposition or demand exactly what the reformers want: universal pre-kindergarten in the public schools.
We are headed in this direction as Connecticut's two major preschool programs with their separate missions begin to merge in practical terms. As unionized college-trained teachers replace traditional caregivers, the relatively cost-effective Care 4 Kids' custodianship program will be transformed into a massively expensive rigorously educational one — else, why the need for more qualified pre-kindergarten staff? Care 4 Kids will become indistinguishable from the School Readiness program.
The result will be that the head-start benefit for 7,000 genuinely poor kids will be diluted, and the cost of the now over-designed Care 4 Kids program for 20,000 lower-income kids will skyrocket — and middle-class parents of other 3- and 4-year-olds will face higher taxes to pay for all this. They will then be unable to afford tuition at their private preschools, where costs will be trending rapidly upward as the escalation in pre-kindergarten staff compensation in the public sector affects the entire pre-kindergarten labor market.
Before such a drastic metamorphosis takes place, we should reassert the separation of the two programs and the integrity of their original missions —- before grandiose and unnecessary expansion of public education buries our heavily taxed and deeply indebted state, which recently lapsed into yet another budget deficit.
Red Jahncke is president of The Townsend Group International, a business consulting firm, in Greenwich.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at