Once again, folks, we see the Law of Unintended Consequences in effect:
Programs for young children — whether you call them day care or preschool or even third grade — serve two purposes. On the one hand, they are educational settings that are supposed to help foster the kids’ long-term development. On the other hand, they are safe places where parents can put their children so they can go do other things during the day — things like work for a living. In an ideal world, of course, they do both. The best preschool programs have been shown to have significant lifelong benefits for their students, and they’re doubtless a huge help to parents too. But a sobering new analysis by Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber (yes, that Jonathan Gruber), and Kevin Milligan of Quebec’s effort to expand access to child care on the cheap is a painful reminder that the two issues can come apart.
The program was designed to increase mothers’ labor force participation rate, and it worked. Lots of people used the system, lots of moms went to work, incomes and GDP rose, and the program was quite affordable to the taxpayer. Kids’ test scores stayed flat.
But contrasting trends in Quebec kids with kids from other Canadian provinces, the authors find “a significant worsening in self-reported health and in life satisfaction among teens” who grew up exposed to the program* along with a “sharp and contemporaneous increase in criminal behavior among the cohorts exposed to the Quebec program, relative to their peers in other provinces.”
What happened was that the government of Quebec decided that everyone deserved cheap daycare — as a little as $5 a day. And a lot cheap daycare is what they got. With such a huge influx of children, poor quality daycare providers proliferated. And many of these providers were much worse than, you know, parents. Worse, many of them were focused on academics, at the government’s urgency. But most research (and almost all parents) will tell you that learning social skills is way more important to preschoolers than learning their ABC’s.
I’ve written about the idiocy of the push for universal pre-K numerous times. You can also check out Megan McArdle, who goes into detail about why the push for universal pre-K is ill-advised. Note, importantly, that the federal push is for more academics and “accelerated learning” — precisely the emphasis that has produced such a disaster in Quebec.
But this about more than the expected Democratic push for universal pre-K. This about the expected Democratic push for federally mandated everything. There is nothing more dangerous than good intentions. The Democrats have given us a series of financial reforms to “protect Americans” that have created a series of financial crises (with Dodd-Frank likely to precipitate the next one. They’ve poured money into making sure everyone can get a college education … which has made college obscenely expensive. They’ve given us “universal healthcare” that has caused insurance rates to skyrocket. And they’ve created a free public education system which is one of the worst-performing in the developed world.
The push for universal pre-K is on. Let’s use Quebec as an example of what not to do. Because it would really be a tragedy if one of the more functional parts of our education system — the dynamic and mostly private pre-K system — was wrecked the slime engine of big government.