The Risk of Obama's Universal Daycare

Scientists may eventually decode the Radical Egalitarian genome and, rest assured, they will find a totalitarian gene. But, even without this research, the evidence for this gene's existence is overwhelming -- what begins as an idealistic Utopian vision inescapably mutates into forceful all-encompassing state intrusion, everything from telling us what to think to how to raise children.

The latest expression of this gene is President Obama's call to expand early childhood education. Admittedly, this hardly appears "totalitarian" but this is deceptive. Heavy-handed state intrusion always beings innocuously, a "good idea" to cure a seeming intractable problem but as one intervention after the next falls short, state power expands and personal freedom slips away.

Obama's initiative is only emerging but its key elements are clear. A state-federal partnership will guarantee a pre-kindergarten education to every family whose income falls below 200% of the poverty line ($38,000 for a single parent with two children). Head Start will also be massively expanded (it currently consumes $7.6 billion). More money will also go to the Nurse Family Partnership program with its home visits to assist in parenting.

Predictably, as with all top-down education programs (recall No Child Left Behind), this early intervention will, allegedly, be cost effective since it will "cure" multiple future problems, e.g., teen pregnancy, school drop outs, and crime, while, miraculously, closing race- related gaps in academic achievement. 

This hyper-expensive proposal is probably DOA given GOP control of the House but, rest assured, its allure is forever. With that in mind, let me offer an antidote that, I hope, can cure this seemingly irrepressible urge to fix everything by enrolling millions of toddlers into state-administered daycare.

Let's begin fundamentally -- a free society rests on shielding the family from the state. Yes, the line can be fuzzy -- government mandates childhood vaccinations, it criminalizes child abuse and supplies food but every intervention requires case-by-case justification and escape should be legally possible (e.g., home schooling). Closing race-related gaps in academic attainment (among other lofty Obama aims) hardly justifies as vital to a free society or the welfare of children. In a nutshell, Obama's scheme is clear-cut over-reach in a society that cherishes liberty. It is the difference between the Soviet Union's Young Pioneers and America's Boy Scouts. The President's tone-deafness to this distinction is hardly surprising, of course, given the rest of his legislative agenda.

The Obama's job rich plan is also unnecessary. The key here is "high quality" daycare. For Obama and his advisors, "high quality" means something concocted by professors of education and bureaucrats, not what ordinary parents prefer. Fortunately, today's daycare marketplace overflows with popular options at every price point, all of which reflect private consumer demand.

There's the unlicensed "neighborhood grandma" who offers bare bones, inexpensive supervision. Her qualifications are "I raised three of my own." Then there's the church run facility, also likely to be reasonably priced, convenient and open to all faiths. The top-of-the line options are educationally-oriented businesses that boast of trained staffs, an emphasis on cognitive development and other skills reflecting upper middle-class parental values.

Here's the fly in the Obama ointment: parents legitimately differ on "quality" and we cannot assume that low-income parents actually want their children's vocabulary upgraded or exposed to the art and music favored by the upper middle class. For these low-income parents, a physically safe, clean and nurturing environment with flexible hours is probably paramount. Narrowing academic gaps is undoubtedly far down their list for "quality daycare." Recall that Washington once offered free after school "cram academies" to academically troubled inner-city kids, but participation was near zero.       

Free market non-government-run daycare is just what the doctor ordered for a free society and I'd bet that every parent, rich or poor, knows his or her options and readily shops the market. When my children were young I discovered that my local "grandma's" idea of daycare was never-ending TV and Coco Puffs. I immediately switched to the facility run by the nearby Protestant church. My twice daily visits plus talking to staff and my children convinced me that this was a wise choice.  

Now for the dark side of this government "help." The program's very definition of "high quality" plus the focus on the staff's academic qualifications guarantees domination by today's education establishment. In effect, current providers of low-cost daycare to the poor will be put out of business, rivals (including Grandma) banished; an infatuation with multiculturalism, the commitment to appreciating differences and moral relativism will infuse "quality daycare."

As is often the case, this PC agenda will be pushed under the guise of combating "hate." Toddlers will learn about "dangerous stereotypes" and how any aversion to people unlike themselves is an unpardonable sin. Lessons may well include tales of how capitalist greed destroys the environment and all the rest of the left's agenda.

This access to malleable minds is the egalitarian dream, and getting a government check for it is ecstasy. The neighborhood grandma with her Coco Puffs may not have been keen on vocabulary building but at least she refrained from explaining how gender was socially constructed.

Indeed, a willingness to propagate today's PC agenda may well be a job requirement ("familiarity with the latest educational theories") so trendy nonsense becomes the very essence of "quality daycare."

An unacknowledged irony here is that this free daycare is heralded as a means to strengthening often frayed families. The opposite is more plausible -- its availability can make parents less responsible. Apathetic parents can now easily outsource providing meals, potty training, teaching morality and all the rest that traditionally defines raising children. In some neighborhoods daycare might become 24/7 enterprises where some parents might only occasionally visit their children. Of course this government facilitated neglect is hardly a disaster for those profiting from Washington's largess and some children might also benefit from this care. 

One last item. President Obama's vision rests on multiple misrepresentations of research findings and this only confirms the enterprise's ideological (and job creation) mission. At best, his advisers cherry picked the research and the President is too trusting. His boast about the proven usefulness of Head Start ($180 billion since its creation) is particularly galling given the overwhelming evidence that its positive impact on cognitive development is small and quickly vanishes (see here, here and here). Yes, there have been occasional near miracles thanks to early intervention, but time and time again, these results were just hype or convenient falsehood (in some states test scores declined despite pre-school programs). The bottom line is that early intervention has existed for decades, billions have been spent, and measured by sorrowful outcomes progress since the mid-1960s is minimal or even zero.

A far superior solution and one consistent with a society free of heavy handed state control is to get more money into the hands of parents wanting quality daycare (however defined) and let the market work its magic. Parents will decide what's best for junior and I seriously doubt if most want their youngsters indoctrinated by left-leaning professional educators