NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Rather than Government, Private Philanthropy Should Expand Pre-K

May 7, 2013

During his last State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a new universal pre-kindergarten education program. The proposal is based on the perceived success of the Head Start program and research showing that disadvantaged students not prepared for kindergarten may be permanently left behind. While the intention of the program is certainly good, its method of funding means the program will eventually become an underfunded federal mandate that burdens local school districts, says Howard Husock, a Manhattan Institute scholar.

While proponents claim that Head Start is an effective program, a growing body of research indicates that the early education program, which we already spend $8 billion on annually, has few lasting effects in later years of childhood. The universal pre-K proposal follows a trend that dates back to the 1960s, or even Roosevelt's New Deal, that as Americans we look to the federal government to formulate and fund new programs for the disadvantaged. In reality, there are plenty of examples of the ability of private philanthropy and strong local organizations in addressing social problems without government intervention.

  • The settlement house movement of the early 20th century created more than 400 houses across 33 states that offered assistance to new immigrants in helping them to assimilate to American culture and advance economically. The success of such local organizations is credited with helping an entire generation of immigrants.
  • Another example is the Montessori movement, which expanded the idea that structured play leads to cognitive development starting in the 1960s. The result is a network of thousands of Montessori-style pre-schools and K-12 schools that are accredited by the American Montessori Society.

The takeaway from these examples is that privately-supported programs could expand pre-K to local school systems across the country without government support.

  • Despite an economic recession and a slow recovery, private philanthropic assets have been growing and are distributed every year by more than 600 local community foundations, which could serve as the structure needed to expand pre-K.
  • The philanthropic model would be more effective than the government model by using local staff and leadership guided by a national board that certifies standards, much like the American Montessori Society.

Private pre-K might also be more efficient than Obama's $75 billion proposed program expenditure over the next 10 years, which includes union wages and standards for teachers and support for middle-income families. Private philanthropy could instead focus its money where it would be most effective and individualized, while drawing on community resources and America's generous charitable giving.

Source: Howard Husock, "Expanding Pre-K Education: How Philanthropy Could Do the Job Better than Obama," Forbes, April 25, 2013.


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