<Originally posted at Sound Politics>
Government funded preschool is one of the latest public policy fads and unfortunately Seattle might catch on to it this election with two initiatives on the ballot. Although the Seattle Times editorial board got it right in recommending a no vote on Proposition 1A, it recommended we “hop on the train” and vote yes on initiative 1B. The board seems to have gotten swept up in the hype and forgotten to ask the right questions.
While not as sweeping as Proposition 1A, the City Council backed 1B provides some level of funding to all families regardless of income and would insert local government even deeper into regulating and defining standards for local pre-schools. The key question to ask in assessing any public policy proposal is what is the proper role of government in this area? Given that pre-K education is not mandated by government, it’s not clear that it should run or fund it the way it does for K-12.
There’s also a plethora of choices for parents in Seattle and over 60% of pre-K age kids here attend preschool or formal child care, so there doesn’t appear to be any market failure justifying heavy handed council intervention. A large number of families in Seattle choose not to send their children to preschool, preferring to keep them at home.
The Seattle Times correctly assessed that research into other states that have run pre-school programs suggests that “kids from low-income families gain the most” from them. Studies of these programs have also found that within a couple of years of entering a K-12 program, other children (outside the low-income cohort) who attended pre-K had similar skills to those that did not. In other words, any initial benefit for these kids fades out over time.
This begs another question. Why does Proposition 1B provide subsidies for all families, including those with six and seven figure incomes? Given that studies suggest there’s essentially no educational benefit for kids from middle or high income families, why increase property taxes on all Seattleites to subsidize the wealthy? Furthermore, it’s folly to think that subsidizing the rich will impact their decision one way or the other to send their kids to preschool.
Not only is Proposition 1B costly in terms of taxes, but also in terms of burdensome new regulations it will create. In order for pre-schools to be eligible for subsidies the City of Seattle will certify preschools for quality, which isn’t defined. Given how poorly the City runs K-12, do we really want it involved in quality decisions around our preschools, outside of the current basic licensing and regulation? Any increased involvement by the City will inevitably lead to fewer choices for parents and most likely to higher overall costs.
Proposition 1B is far too expansive in scope and fails to address any real public policy problem. While we should encourage public and private efforts to get at-risk kids and low-income children into preschool, this initiative does much more than that and will break something that doesn’t need fixing.