Can anything dampen the left’s enthusiasm for universal early childhood education? When a recent study from Tennessee found that kids who attended the state’s pre-K program were actually doing worse both on academic achievement and disciplinary measures than their peers who didn’t attend, progressive policy wonks simply refused to believe it. Beth Meloy, who consults for the Early Learning and Care Division at the California Department of Education, told a reporter: “We need to look into the context of these studies….There are many factors that influence a child’s development and later academic achievement.” Maybe, but the study’s release was delayed by two years and was made public only after researchers at Vanderbilt had produced 26 supplementary tables to test all possible explanations for the divergence.
As a matter of fact, the results were not all that different from those of other programs designed to help disadvantaged kids become more prepared for school. One particularly damning study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Head Start produced about the same results as regular exposure to Sesame Street. Head Start costs around $7,000 a year. Sesame Street is on TV.
The Brown University economist Nate Hilger is aware of the studies that puncture holes in the effectiveness of these programs, but like a committed Communist who believes we simply haven’t tried a pure enough form of the political arrangement to render judgment, he argues that these programs simply don’t have enough funding.
In his new book, The Parent Trap, Hilger proposes a “Familycare” program that would “cost something like 2 percent of GDP,” an expenditure he characterizes as “modest.” Indeed, it could hardly be unreasonable, he says, to devote such resources to helping families when we spend 3.2 percent of GDP on the military: “If we want, we can think of Familycare like a new military, but instead of protecting us from foreign threats, Familycare protects us from a dire domestic threat—the destruction caused by foregone investments in children’s skill growth.” If all this sounds like the kind of thing an earnest high-school student might say in a debate, keep in mind that Hilger was an adviser to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.
The premise of The Parent Trap is that we are asking parents to do too much. Sure, they should provide their kids with love and affection. But to be a halfway adequate parent in 21st-century America requires building skills, Hilger says. And while many wealthy and middle-class parents know how to build those skills in their kids or can figure it out—or pay others to do it—there are millions of parents who can’t.
What are these skills? Hilger doesn’t come out with a list, but we can discern that they are the qualities that lead people to become economically successful. He says that we require parents to “act as pediatricians, nutritionists, college counselors, tutors, real estate agents, and chief executive officers.” Whether it’s managing a child’s health conditions or finding the right elementary school or filling out a college financial-aid form, these tasks have become too complicated, and it’s time for the government to step in and help.
Hilger doesn’t blame schools for these problems. He notes that students spend only a small fraction of their lives in school. Much of the learning gap is in place long before students even get to kindergarten. And he goes to great pains to explain to readers that funding of schools is not the issue, since he clearly assumes that his audience will find it hard to believe that some of the best-funded schools in this country are also the worst-performing.
The other thing he feels that he needs to establish for his audience is that poor children—and, in particular, poor black children—can actually be helped, that it is possible to change the trajectory of these kids’ lives. Does he think his audience is made up of all white supremacists? No, it’s just that they believe systemic racism will always prevent black people from getting ahead. But when blacks and whites have the same skills—for instance, when they score the same on the Armed Services Qualification Test or they graduate from the same college with the same major—the income gap largely disappears. “Equalizing opportunities for skill growth in Black communities would eliminate much more than half of Black-white income inequality and would do so even if racial prejudice remained prevalent,” he writes.
One wonders whether Hilger will get into trouble among his progressive friends for such assertions. Of course he pays homage to the idea that black people are only poor today because of slavery and Jim Crow—by suggesting that it is those very things that have historically prevented them from learning the skills they needed to succeed. He doesn’t acknowledge that black incomes were growing faster in the 1950s when prejudice was much more of an issue.
But don’t worry, he assures his readers. There are professionals who can help: “When we look for good investments both before and after kids enter K12 schools, we find extravagantly high-return opportunities foregone by millions of families.” Take for instance a program called BAM, which stands for “Becoming a Man.” He quotes its founder as saying that when growing up, he “sorely missed a father figure.”
This passage, which occurs more than three-quarters of the way through the book, is the first time that we hear that some children in this country face another kind of disadvantage—one that is the result of neither their skin color nor their parents’ income. It is the result of growing up without a father.
Four of every 10 children in this country are born to single mothers. And those kids are less likely to graduate high school, more likely to end up abusing drugs, more likely to end up being disciplined in school, and more likely to wind up in jail. And they will start having sex at an earlier age than their peers. It never occurs to Hilger to see how much of the inequality gap could be fixed if parents followed the “success sequence”—graduating high school and getting married before having children. But here’s a hint: Among graduates of selective colleges, three-quarters were from families in which their birth parents were married to each other. Hilger mentions none of this. There is no discussion of marriage in this book. He thinks that we can fix the issues of family structure just by signing kids up for mentoring programs.
Similarly, he suggests that housing segregation in the past is the reason that so many black Americans live in poor neighborhoods near bad schools. But he never asks why it is that a child’s zip code should prevent parents from picking any school they want to for their children or which interest groups have ensured that it is all but impossible for parents to use their tax dollars for private schools or charter schools that would serve their kids better.
Hilger is convinced that parents need their own movement, “an organization that advocates for them in all aspects of child skill development, makes their lives as parents simpler and more manageable, and inspires fear in elected officials.” He has somehow missed the fact that such a movement has been forming over the past two years. The shutdowns of schools, the nonsense being taught in them, and the way that children have been treated have inspired parents across the country to rise up as never before. And as for inspiring fear in elected officials? Well, these parents have been designated domestic terrorists by the Justice Department. Need we say more?
The problem for Hilger and his friends, though, is that these parents have not been agitating for the things he wants them to agitate for. He believes they should want more government-funded day care, someone to provide their children with healthy meals, and someone to explain to them which extracurricular activities to sign up their kids for. But what they actually want is the freedom to be able to spend their money—including their tax money—on programs that work for them. For the most disadvantaged kids, of course, there is every reason to provide programs and policies that will help them to mimic the lives of the middle class, including access to high-quality private and public schools. But there are some things, such as fatherlessness, that even 2 percent of GDP will not be able to solve.
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