Obama and Duncan: Mandatory Universal Preschool?

The governor’s political appointee to the state Board of Education seems to be advocating for universal preschool in his latest blog article. Is this Bill Duncan’s way of indicating that NH should implement universal preschool? It is important to know because the state BOE is a powerful agency of the executive branch and has historically cooperated with the state Department of Education to lobby the legislature for top-down control of New Hampshire’s education system.

It seems Duncan is unaware that universal preschool and programs like Head Start are colossal failures. In 2012 the federal department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a study that condemns the four-decade $200 billion experiment as a massive failure. HHS hid the report for years and released it just prior to the holidays in an attempt to bury the results. Like previous studies, this 2012 report shows that Head Start does not have lasting benefits to young students. The studies that suggest positive gains are also controversial and subject to multiple criticisms. There are other reports with mixed results.

As examples, Georgia and Oklahoma were two of the earliest states to adopt universal preschool programs. Since implementing them almost 20 years ago, neither state has significant graduation rate improvements and they have failed to close the reading achievement gap between white and minority students. Additionally, OK ranks near the bottom in math and science.

Other states, like New York, have more recently implemented universal preschool, but there is widespread debate whether it favors wealthy families or if it should be targeted to low-income families and at-risk children. States also disagree how to fund these expensive programs and how to define success or “high quality.”

Additionally it can be argued that universal preschool is developmentally inappropriate or even harmful to young children with a classroom’s overemphasis on academics and not enough unstructured play. These early childhood programs also ignore that children learn at different rates.

Analysis of early childhood education programs tend to focus on costs vs. benefits and long-term economic gains. This ignores that children are people and are important beyond their “return on investment.”

Maybe Duncan believes this is a way for New Hampshire to receive federal funds from the Preschool for All program. Unfortunately, enacting programs to chase federal dollars has not been a responsible way to bring about reform. All too often the mandatory strings attached to these programs end up costing more than the money they provide.

Currently New Hampshire law requires all children to attend school if they are six years old by September 30th. While many states are lowering the age for compulsory attendance, could mandatory preschool be far off, especially in light of President Obama’s recent remarks? Further, in a June 2013 speech, Education Secretary Arne Duncan implied that there is something wrong when families do not enroll in preschool programs.

New Hampshire has been a long-time leader in education excellence. The grand goals of universal preschool have not materialized and NH does not need to be a lemming of a yet another failed education experiment.