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Early education bill critique

07/29/03 12:00AM By John McClaughry
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(Host) Commentator John McClaughry critiques a plan that aims to enroll all children into early education programs.


(McClaughry) Next January the Senate will see a serious push for the early learning bill . It's the showcase legislation of the State Department of Education and the constellation of interest groups revolving around it.

In a nutshell, the bill asks that public education be changed from ages 5-17 to ages 3-17. Under the bill, towns would not be required to operate preschools, nor would parents be required to send their children to them. But the Department's ultimate goal is universal preschool, paid for by taxpayers.

The department's policy memo outlines what this expanded public school establishment will look like. It will look exactly like our present centrally-controlled, industrialized, over-regulated, costly, bureaucratic K-12 public school system.

The Department intends that the new programs may be run directly by the school district, operated by contract, or linked in state-approved partnerships with other approved community-based early education programs - all controlled by the government, of course, and coordinated by Regional Early Childhood Councils. The state Board will see that every teacher or facility involved will be nationally accredited, licensed, or certified. And here's a key point: The new programs will serve not just a small number of at-risk children from disadvantaged families, for whom a public expenditure is most justified, but all children.

The Department estimates that if 80% of all 3- and 4-year olds choose to participate, the new program will cost $34 million. Where will it come from? From the cornucopia called the state Education Fund!

Notably lacking in the Department's proposal is any recognition that leaving preschoolers at home with a family member might be preferable to herding them into the school system. Nor did the Department entertain the thought that perhaps faith-based organizations might provide more trusted and effective social and emotional development than public schools. And supremely absent is any recognition that parents might want to choose among many preschool programs, instead of having to consign their child to the local government-controlled monopoly.

What the Department proposes in its empire-building enthusiasm is to generalize the claimed benefits of preschooling at-risk children to all children, use scarce state capital construction funds to build new preschools even as the school age population drops, festoon the program with all of the Department's bureaucratic licensing, certifying, approving and accrediting chains, ignore the potential of faith-based alternatives, and reject parental choice.

The bill to launch the first phase of that sweeping proposal will be up for action next January. Let's hope it doesn't take Vermonters by surprise.

This is John McClaughry - thanks for listening.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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