President Barack Obama is expected in Atlanta today, to pitch a problem to a solution.
No, I don’t have that backward.
The president’s planned visit today to a Decatur pre-k school comes on the heels of his lauding Georgia’s preschool program during his State of the Union address Tuesday night. He wants to use it as a model for a federal effort “to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”
While I join Obama in applauding educational innovation in the states, I can think only of reasons a federal preschool program is a bad idea. Not least is the fact that the existing federal preschool program, Head Start, has been declared a failure by the very agency that administers it.
Head Start, a program for low-income children, has been around since 1965. But three years ago, after four and a half decades and $166 billion spent on the program, the Department of Health and Human Services concluded first-graders who had been in Head Start held virtually no advantage over their peers who hadn’t.
It’s an expensive failure, costing more than $7.5 billion per year to serve fewer than 1 million kids. At $7,838, Head Start’s cost per student in 2011 nearly doubled the $4,302 Georgia spent on each pre-k student that year.
But if Georgia is getting better results at roughly half the price, shouldn’t we want to see its model copied in other states?
Maybe so. Or maybe other states have different needs. Either way, they won’t match our success — and we won’t maintain it — if the feds take over pre-k.
As U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss put it to me last month: “There are too many people in Washington who are entrenched in the idea that if the federal government’s going to be involved in a program, we need to control it. And the way you control it is with money.”
Chambliss was talking about obstacles to devolving federal programs such as k-12 education and Medicaid to the states. But this fact of life in Washington is also a certain preview of how pre-k will turn out if it’s federalized.
There will be money, but also strings: regulations, stipulations, expectations. Even in Georgia the program won’t look like it does now, because the feds will craft policies for Savannah and Seattle, and everywhere in between. Successive agency heads for the program will want to put their stamps on it, if only to justify their jobs and budgets.
And, as clearly as Georgia’s elected leaders should see this coming, they’ll be hard-pressed to avoid it. The money will be too hard to pass up.
Georgia spends about one-third of its lottery proceeds on pre-k, about $312.4 million in next year’s projected revenues. The rest goes to the HOPE scholarship. How tempting will it be for a Georgia governor one day, if the value of HOPE continues to shrink relative to the cost of tuition, to take the federal pre-k dollars and devote all lottery revenues to college students?
But it will be fool’s gold, and not only because there’s no such thing as “free money” from the feds since taxpayers foot the bill sooner or later.
There’s also this: Those folks who rate government programs chiefly by how much money we spend on them will declare this a good deal — at first. Eventually, though, they’ll bemoan the falling quality of pre-k in Georgia and beseech Atlanta or Washington to cough up more money so that it can regain the effectiveness it once had … back when it was a cheaper, state-run program.
Washington this year is projected to borrow $7 billion (almost the annual cost of Head Start) every three days. Yet, Democrats and some Republicans are wringing their hands about the so-called sequester budget cuts that would trim that figure by barely one-tenth. So, you’d think this is exactly the wrong time for the feds to take on yet another role the states have proven themselves capable of handling.
That Obama is holding up Georgia’s pre-k program as a reason for Washington to get more involved in pre-k, rather than as evidence the states can handle more roles the feds can’t afford, shows just how backward he has it.
– By Kyle Wingfield