It’s Time for Congress to End These Federal Intrusions into Preschool


Last Thursday’s edition of Politico’s Morning Education had a short blurb on the status of the preschool development grants, yet another ill-considered federal preschool program imposed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Here is part of what was written:

WHAT’S UP WITH PRESCHOOL DEVELOPMENT GRANTS? Like many other programs waiting on Congress’ fiscal 2018 budget, the Preschool Development Grant program created by the Every Student Succeeds Act has yet to hit the stage. The grant program, modeled after an Obama-era initiative by the same name, authorizes funding for state-level preschool efforts for 3- and 4-year-olds to the tune of $250 million. While the program awaits funding, states that received aid under the program’s previous iteration will soon exhaust their funds…

…The grant program was born out of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, but was later codified in the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new version of the program will be run out of the Department of Health and Human Services – as opposed to the joint effort between HHS and Education that it used to be – and places limits on federal interference. HHS has not yet released an application for the next round of grants.

That this program has not received any funding is very good news, and there are several important reasons that Congress should refuse further funding during budget negotiations. The two most important are the federal interference that is very present, despite Politico’s claim and the flowery language in the bill, and the continued ineffectiveness, academic and emotional harm of preschool programs in general, especially Head Start.

As I wrote at the time ESSA was being drafted:

The grants require alignment to Head Start and the Child Development Block Grants that in turn require [in eleven different places in the current Head Start statute, such as Section 642B(a)(2)(B)(iii)] national preschool standards. These standards are being correlated and aligned to the K-12 Common Core by national organizations and states like California.  They include very controversial and subjective psychosocial standards like gender identity (p. 27), creating a “Baby Common Core.” (See more details on the problematic language HERE.)

This alignment language to Head Start completely negates the “no federal interference” for the grant language in ESSA. These federal standards are in large part social emotional, which makes them even more controversial than the K-12 Common Core standards, which are for the academic subjects of reading and math. Having the federal government require a grant program to align to a federal law that imposes content standards on essentially every pre-k program in the country is the epitome of federal interference. Perpetrating this scheme of such overt federal control of K-12 standards would have created an enormous uproar. It is a complete mystery why constitutional conservatives allowed it during the 2007 reauthorization of Head Start.

The other major problem with the preschool development grants is that they are funding programs that simply do not work — or worse, show evidence of academic or emotional harm to attendees. This list of federally funded Head Start studies includes a 1997 review of over 600 different studies showing “the body of research on current Head Start is insufficient to draw conclusions about the impact of the national program.” My compilation of about 30 studies shows similar evidence for many other early childhood programs.

Multiple university-based early childhood scholars have slowly been forced to admit that, despite decades of study, there still really is no or very little evidence of effectiveness beyond the actual preschool year. In a 2017 white paper titled “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,” these experts made a number of important admissions in line with the contention of many of us concerned about government pre-k expansion:

  • “Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled-up pre-k programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-k-induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs.” [Emphasis added]
  • “…we are keenly aware that the research methods that have been deployed to understand pre-k impacts are not yet as strong as we would like and that our conclusions have yet to stand the test of time.”
  • “The challenges of scale-up are illustrated by the national Head Start program, for which consistently strong and enduring impacts have been elusive.”

Unfortunately, this paper and others like it from the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings came out after the preschool development grants had already passed.

Another major problem with these grants includes the potential for expanding government home visiting programs, which is a key element of Head Start. We have discussed the many problems with home visiting numerous times. Sending government agents into the home to tell people how to raise their children is not only invasive, but also has been quite ineffective.

Finally, there is the data mining aspect of these preschool programs that is worrisome as well. Besides lots of social emotional profiling of young children, there is also much sensitive family data that is collected as well. The Pew Charitable Trust is advocating for as much individual family-level data collection as possible. This is especially concerning with the specter of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (FEPA – S 2046) becoming law that would create a de facto national database due to data being available between all the federal agencies.

President Trump wisely asked for a cut in Head Start in his budget proposal. Congress can’t come to an agreement on the federal home visiting program, which expired last September, and now, there is no funding agreement for the preschool development grants. Given the federal overreach, ineffectiveness, danger to parental autonomy, privacy invasion, and exorbitant cost of these programs, this is a very encouraging trend that we should all support. Please tell your members of Congress to leave these programs out of the budget or at least to dramatically decrease their funding.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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