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Column: ... And preschool for all

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Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are not as they ought to be. — The Devil’s Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce

The governor didn’t need to throw data at us in his State of the State address. We all agree that Hoosier families are overwhelmed. Our political leaders should be commended for dedicating this session to considering the most vulnerable in those families — preschool children.

Let us hope, though, that we don’t wake up one day to find that this profound issue was treated carelessly, even politically. The weak rationale behind the pertinent legislation troubles that thought.

For starters, the politicians misidentify the problem. They tell us that state involvement in preschool is needed to assist academically disadvantaged 4-year-olds. The scholarly research, though, is mixed. Indeed, the two sides of the issue are asking different questions. Jason Richwine, writing in National Review, frames the debate this way:

“The relevant public policy question — the one with which skeptics concern themselves — is not whether early education in general has value, but whether government preschool provides any additional value. For the clearest illustration, imagine a new government-funded preschool in which all the children who attend have simply switched over from a private preschool of equal quality. In that case, the supposed public benefit of government preschool — fostering a more educated citizenry — would be non-existent.”

And the most extensively studied preschool experiment, the 1960s Perry Program in Ypsilanti, Mich., finds no increase in Intelligent Quotient. The observable benefit in the Perry study, interestingly, is more important than scoring well on a standardized test: Preschool apparently teaches self-management, self-control, how to effectively apply not only intelligence but all other faculties.

The thing about preschool is this: It fills a unique niche in all of education. The first day children enter that classroom is the day when they are introduced to society itself, a wondrous but odd place for “students” who just a few months before were being treated as toddlers, if not babies. That can be exhilarating for one, terrifying for another.

In either case, the coming days are critical.

The experts, including those who study brain development, tell us that this is the time in life — perhaps the optimum time — when 4-year-olds can be taught self-control, something they notoriously lack. It is where they can begin to develop a healthy, constrained vision of their place in a free society. They need this and need it quickly if they are going to do what they want to do most in the world — play with the children on the other side of that room.

But socializing isn’t easy when you’re 4; you need help. Ideally, that help comes from a loving parent. In a pinch, though, it comes from a trusted and carefully chosen surrogate — in this context, an experienced preschool teacher.

So why can’t government be a preschool “shareholder,” as they like to say — at least to the degree it helps the most financially hard-pressed afford that surrogate, maybe even provide a couple of thousand iPads?

The answer is that proactive government is an idiot at creating freestanding, well-rounded citizens. It is a genius, though, at forging dependent, myopic subjects, a product for which there is no popular demand in a constitutional republic.

So is this a bait-and-switch?

Cecil Bohanon addressed the dichotomy in a recent column for The Indiana Policy Review: “Self-control may be one of the virtues necessary for a free society. Nevertheless, it seems ironic to use the coercive mechanism of government (yes, taxes are coercion) to set up programs to teach self-control to groups that social scientists tell us lack self-control.”

The tip-off that this might be headed in the wrong direction is Statehouse supporters of the governor’s preschool plans have coalesced around a voucher system with its accompanying actual or implied regulatory intrusion. Tax credits would have been the more straightforward, disencumbering way to help preschool children and their families.

That is the goal here, right? Helping preschool children? Not padding political resumes, building new regulatory platforms, bolstering public-sector unions or propping up marginal schools?

Only a cynic would think otherwise.

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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