COVID-19 lockdowns and school closures that don't account for local conditions have served as a useful reminder that universal one-size-fits-all policies are generally not the best solutions. Now the Biden administration is applying similar one-size-fits-all logic to his universal pre-K plan.
After a year and a half of cyclical government-mandated school and daycare closures, many parents are desperate for relief. They may think any help is better than no help, but President Joe Biden is proposing an inflexible model that will drive up childcare costs and result in less variety among preschools.
Under the Biden plan, states will only be able to give federal funds to preschool programs that offer at least 1,020 hours of instruction annually. That is more hours than most states require for children in K-12 schools. In my home state of Pennsylvania, 900 hours is considered full-time for elementary school; for high school, it's 990 hours. Oregon, Massachusetts, Idaho, New Hampshire, Utah, and Virginia similarly top out at 990 hours. Some states are even lower. Requiring more hours annually than high schools must offer is a ridiculous mandate to put on a pre-K program. Preschool is meant to be a bridge toward full-time school. Parents who don't want a full-time preschool program are not served well by Biden's plan.
Biden's universal pre-K plan will drive up teaching costs since it mandates that pay for preschool teachers be equivalent to elementary school teachers' salaries, provided they have similar credentials and experience. Elementary school salaries vary across districts. Will private providers have to match their salary scale to the local union-dominated public school's salary scale? This is essentially putting prevailing wage rules on preschool programs, and will unnecessarily drive up costs.
The "free" nature of the Biden plan will also increase costs by increasing demand among parents who otherwise wouldn't be interested in full-time preschool. If their choices are to pay for a program with fewer hours or get one with more hours at no cost, many will choose the "free" one even if they would have ordinarily preferred another option. We already see this play out in K-12 schools; polls show only 40 percent of parents would choose their assigned district school if they could afford other options, but 80 percent of students attend traditional public schools.
Any state that signs up for the Biden plan needs to realize state taxpayers will be responsible for these new programs when the federal money runs out. The federal reimbursement for the universal preschool program drops to 64 percent in 2027—and then to zero soon after. So the Biden plan will create a new bureaucracy, increase preschool costs, provide partial funding for a few years, and then state taxpayers will be facing massive new costs as far as the eye can see.
Not only will state taxpayers be left with the tab, but parents will also be left with programs that aren't flexible enough to meet their needs. And to what end? New research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman reinforces the case for targeted, rather than universal, social service programs. "More advantaged families are better able to access, utilize, and influence universally available programs," Heckman and co-author Rasmus Landersø wrote in a March 2020 working paper. These advantages don't go away with universal provision, so these programs may worsen inequality. Heckman finds targeted programs to be more effective at reducing inequality.
But the U.S. government doesn't have the best track record with targeted programs. Consider the Head Start preschool program, which is expected to be the model for Biden's plan according to Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association. The most comprehensive Head Start study, released by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in 2012, found the program had little or no impact on student outcomes by 3rd grade—despite costing more than $7 billion per year at the time ($7,900 per participant).
No doubt "free" preschool sounds appealing to parents with young children, but they should be careful what they wish for. Throughout the country, there are contentious school board meetings and political races showing how impossible it is to satisfy everyone with a universal program.
On the bright side, K-12 education choice is flourishing in the face of this parental frustration. So far this year, 18 states have enacted new education choice programs or expanded existing ones. Many of these have been educational savings accounts (ESAs), which are the most flexible form of education choice, allowing parents to use taxpayer funds for various educational needs like tutoring, tuition, and services for students with special needs. It would be a tragic irony if preschool became mired in bureaucratic mandates and federal involvement right as parents are gaining access to more K-12 options.