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Who Could Possibly Oppose Universal Pre-K?

Biden’s heart is in the right place, but there’s a better way to help families.
May 5, 2021
Who Could Possibly Oppose Universal Pre-K?
(Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Subsidized daycare and universal pre-K are goals that sound so wholesome only a ghoul could oppose them. Especially in an era when Democrats and Republicans have achieved consensus that money grows on trees, who could possibly object to spending a few hundred billion or so, as Biden has proposed with his American Families Plan, on ensuring that kids get the best start in life?

My hand is up. There are many solid reasons to believe that expanding subsidies for daycare and universal pre-K is not good policy, and not good for kids. Here is a partial list:

1) It’s not what parents prefer.

Numerous surveys have shown that most parents prefer arrangements other than commercial, center-based care for their young children. An American Compass survey showed that among poor, working-class, and middle-class parents, the most common preference was for one parent to work and the other to care for children under 5. Only among upper-class families did the largest percentage choose to have both parents working. A 2014 Pew survey found that six in 10 Americans think it is best for children if one parent stays home.

And center-based care is not what Americans are doing. Data from Child Trends show that only about 11 percent of American infants and toddlers were in center-based daycare, with most parents opting for a parent (38 percent), a home-based daycare provided by a family member, friend, or neighbor (30 percent), or some combination (21 percent).

2) Subsidizing daycare may paradoxically increase its price. 

The two areas of the economy in which inflation has far outpaced the norm over the past 20 years are the very realms in which government has intervened to make things “affordable.” So while prices for toys, automobiles, cell phone service, and clothing have not risen as fast as the CPI, health care, college tuition, and college textbooks have increased at twice the rate of inflation.

3) The promised benefits are illusory.

Though President Biden suggested that 3 and 4 year olds who attend pre-K “are far more likely to graduate from high school and continue their education beyond that, rather than start off behind the eight ball,” the evidence doesn’t actually show that. Decades of experience with Head Start have shown that children who attend are no better off academically than children who don’t. One gold-standard study compared disadvantaged children randomly assigned to pre-K in Tennessee. At first, the pre-K kids seemed to score better. But by the third grade, the non-preschool cohort had moved ahead and stayed ahead. “We haven’t found any sustained effects, either in social and emotional development or achievement,” Vanderbilt University professor Dale Farrar, one of the study’s authors, told FiveThirtyEight. Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, formerly of the Brookings Institution, has studied pre-K programs across the country and concluded that “Putting nearly all our eggs in the same basket—enhancing access to state pre-K for four-year-olds—shows little evidence to date of having a substantive payoff in later school achievement.”

Daycare too is a mixed bag. Some famous programs like the Perry Preschool were well funded and high-quality. Most are neither. Many surveys tout the social skills that children acquire in daycare, such as this French study cited by USA Todayunder the headline “Daycare Kids are Better Behaved than Those Who Stay at Home.” But the study actually compared children in one high-quality daycare center with those in “informal childcare.” It’s not clear whether the control group was parental care or some other form. Anyway, this topic is a hot button in the mommy wars, with outlets like Working Mother magazine and the Center for American Progress lauding the benefits of daycare while conservatives note the pitfalls. A 2010 federal study that followed children for decades, the Early Child Care Research Network, found children who spent long hours in daycare to be more impulsive and risk-taking as teenagers. The most compelling evidence for caution comes from Quebec, which instituted a universal daycare program in 1997. The results were worrying. When those toddlers became teenagers, they were less healthy, less happy, and most strikingly, more likely to have criminal records than teenagers from other provinces.

4) It’s not clear what the motive is.

Is this about what’s best for kids or the workforce? Democrats lean toward getting moms into the office as a top priority, which reflects their college-educated, work-as-self-expression bias. In 2017, introducing a similar daycare/pre-K package, Nancy Pelosi explained that “We see this as children learning, parents earning.” When Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council, spoke to columnists about the American Families Plan, she said “We want parents to be in the work force.”

But parents don’t necessarily have the same preferences. A 2019 Pew survey found that 76 percent of adults believed that full-time work is ideal for fathers but only 33 percent thought that about mothers. Among full-time working mothers, only 45 percent think this is ideal. Forty-one percent said part-time work was best, and 11 percent favored no work at all for women with young children. Even many women who’ve earned post-graduate degrees, like me, prioritize raising children over work at certain stages, because nothing is more important than raising healthy, happy kids.

5) There is a better way to help families.

Give the money to the parents. The child tax credit that Biden has already signed is a great start. Direct payments to parents would be a far better way to support families than a massive subsidy to daycare centers and public schools for universal pre-K. With the extra cash, parents can choose whether to have one parent stay at home when the kids are 5 and under (even if there is only one parent), or to use the funds to pay for childcare. It gives the decision to the parents, who know best what suits their circumstances. And by giving the purchasing power to parents, it will encourage competition among providers. Also, it turns out that putting money directly in parents’ pockets does more to improve children’s school readiness than pre-K programs.

The Biden administration wants to help, which is great. They propose to do so without considering the massive evidence that such programs are neither effective nor desired by parents.

Just give moms and dads the money.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].