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Businessmen Support Pre-School Expansion… BUT…

In “Capitalist for Pre-School, an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes by John E. Pepper, Jr. and James Zimmerman, two “long time corporate executives”, demonstrates a solid understanding of the educational argument for the implementation of “quality pre-Kindergarten” programs… but displays extreme naivete when it comes to financing the initiative.

Their argument for universal pre-school is supported with the same rationale that progressive educators use:

Children who attend high-quality preschool do much better when they arrive in kindergarten, and this makes an enormous difference for their later success. The data on preschool is overwhelmingly positive. Although some studies suggest that the positive impact decreases over time, this is mainly attributable to differences in the quality of preschool and of the schooling that follows — not a deficiency in preschool itself.

The article cites a number of examples of successful pre-schools presenting data that illustrates their proven track record. The article also notes that our competition is making large investments in pre-Kindergarten programs, which promises to widen “our greatest deficit in this country — the one that most threatens our future as a nation — …our education deficit” All of this verbiage could come from an article in The Nation or Common Dreams. The article stumbles badly though when it attempts to answer the question about how this could be funded:

Some will ask where the money will come from, at a time when states and localities are even more strapped than the federal government. While there are a variety of financing proposals, we do not believe higher taxes will be necessary in every jurisdiction.

Rather, we believe the right approach will be to rebalance and optimize the money we are spending now. The amount of money being spent on early childhood education is so small currently that we are confident it is possible to achieve the efficiencies needed to shift money from other areas of investment.

Last year, only 2 percent of Ohio’s general-fund budget went to early childhood education. We believe that, with proper planning, that amount could be doubled without compromising other financing streams.

I am a longtime school superintendent and I can tell you that Pepper and Zimmerman’s superficial analysis of costs is WAY off the mark. They seem to base their “rebalance and optimize” argument on the fact that 2% of Ohio’s general fund budget goes to early childhood education. This logic is flawed because it is based on two assumptions: that the all State funded programs are “high quality” in the same way as their exemplary programs; and that the cost to operate exemplary programs is equal to or less than the costs of lower quality programs. The logic is also flawed because many states have less than 2% of their operating budgets earmarked for pre-school education. Bottom line: more money WILL be needed and it will come from all jurisdictions— especially if one of the goals is to provide “struggling families who are living in poverty or close to it (often, even while holding down full-time jobs)”  with a chance to improve the lives of their children.

Finally, like most businessmen I’ve come in contact with over my 29 years as Superintendent, Pepper and Zimmerman have no experience working in a democracy. States and local school boards do not have the ability to unilaterally “rebalance and optimize” their budgets because every budget cut they want to make has to pass muster with voters. As I’ve written in other blog posts, businessperson can sit in a padded chair in a windowless board room and make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis… elected officials make budget decisions sitting in folding chairs in front of the people who will be affected by the cuts. Rebalancing and optimizing isn’t as easy in the public sector as it is in the private sector.

I am pleased that the business community is supporting pre-school. Now they need to understand that it will require more than rebalancing and optimizing: it will require an infusion of cash.

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