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Monday, April 29, 2013

Expanding Pre-K Education: How Philanthropy Could Do the Job Better than Obama 04-29

Expanding Pre-K Education: How Philanthropy Could Do the Job Better than Obama

WOODBOURNE, NY - SEPTEMBER 20:  A child looks ...
WOODBOURNE, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: A child looks out from class at the federally-funded Head Start school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
President Obama’s proposal in his State of the Union address for a major new program to provide universal pre-kindergarten education has been well-received, as well it might be in light of research by the University of Chicago’sJames Heckman and others that disadvantaged students not prepared for kindergarten may be permanently left behind. What criticism there’s been has focused on the program’s financing—$750 billion in new spending, based on an increase in federal cigarette taxes which, in light of the declining number of smokers, will likely lead to decreasing help from Washington for local school districts which find themselves mandated to provide a major new program.
Not discussed, however, is a central assumption behind the Obama proposal—an assumption implicit in all new social programs, at least since the 1960s: that we should look to government—and, moreover, to the federal government—to formulate and fund new programs for the disadvantaged. It’s an assumption that’s become basic to our politics. The fact is, however, that the results have not been encouraging—particularly as they relate to early childhood education. Rigorous studies of the existing federal program for disadvantaged young children, Head Start, on which we already spend $8 billion annually, have shown it to have sharply limited benefits. Is a major new government program the only way to approach our social problems? We should not dismiss the possibility that a combination of private philanthropy and strong local organizations might be a different and better approach.
There are significant precedents in American history for private action as the means of addressing public problems—including the problem of assisting disadvantaged children.
In the early twentieth century, for instance, the settlement house movement, dedicated to acculturating that era’s wave of immigrants and helping them advance economically, arose from one key seed: Jane Addams’ foundation of Hull House in Chicago. By 1897 there were 74—and by 1911 there were 413 spread across 33 states, offering English classes, fresh air summer camps for immigrant children, pasteurized milk for poor families and much more. The movement’s combination of a welcoming hand to the newcomers and belief in the essential goodness of the country’s common culture, is,  it’s worth noting,  one we could still use today, as I’ve written for The Public Interest.)
In the pre-New Deal world, it spread widely without government funding or mandates.  It was a private movement, locally-based but tied through national associations, supported by  local fundraising and volunteers—and spearheaded by civic leaders. By the time immigration ebbed in the 1920s, the movement had long since proved its worth—if only through such contributions as recruiting Benny Goodman for the boys’ band at Hull House, where he received the clarinet lessons which made him a premier jazz musician—and which he credited with keeping him away from the gangs of Chicago’s Maxwell Street.
There’s a similar story—a good idea spreading through private means and local champions—to be told about a previous pre-kindergarten movement. The Montessori movement was  built on the idea that structured play leads to cognitive development. Although its story goes back to the movement’s namesake, Italian educator Maria Montessori and her work with poor children in Rome circa 1907, it took off in the U.S. in the early 1960s, thanks to the Johnny Appleseed-like efforts of one Connecticut woman, Nancy Rambusch. She both  founded the first U.S. Montessori school in Greenwich and sparked local efforts around the country that have led to the establishment of thousands of Montessori-style pre-schools (some linked to K-12 schools, as well), and an American Montessori Society to accredit those it judges to meet its teacher training standards.   It’s no longer  a model for low-income children—typical tuitions  from $8-12,000 (some scholarships offered)—but it does offer evidence that ideas which win the trust of the public can spread without government support. In the case of Montessori schools, they have, moreover, stood the test of time. Indeed, as one AMS official points out, the schools pass a key test of effectiveness: parents are willing to pay to enroll their children in them.
Is there really a lesson in all this for pre-K education for those children at risk of being left behind before they even start? Could actual on-the-ground, privately-supported programs spread, without a program of federal grants—in the case of expanded  pre-K, to local school systems across the country?
There are reasons to think that the precedents of the settlement house and Montessori movements are still relevant. For one thing, private philanthropic assets,  despite the weak economy, has been growing. Of particular note is the growth of donor-advised funds, in essence crowd-sourced foundations, administered by such financial giants as Vanguard and Fidelity, to which individuals contribute a minimum of $10,000. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports (below)  that such funds, as of 2011, managed $24 billion in assets—an actual  increase since the onset of the financial crisis.
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Decisions about how their funds are disbursed are often made by one of the more than 600 local community foundations which have taken root across the U.S. In other words, there is a network of local foundations, supported by individual philanthropy, which could make pre-K education for the disadvantaged a priority.
Anyone who has experience with the complexity of government categorical grants knows that a philanthropically-led effort—one which identifies the population most in need, finds local talent to staff new schools (or expand existing ones) and then, through a locally-based board of directors, holds programs and their leadership accountable—could be more flexible and more effective. Some programs would gain a reputation for success—which has proved so elusive over the past 40 years of government-led efforts—and would then influence others. A national association—like the one which unified the settlement house movement and that today ties the accredited Montessori schools—would be a vehicle through which experience about what works best would be spread. Ineffective programs might actually close the doors—something that almost never happens to government-funded programs. Word of success might, what’s more, influence the field, including existing private day care programs and even families themselves—as a new norm was established for the potential achievement of low-income children.  Indeed, in the long run, improved norms of private behavior—rather than expensive programs with “clients”—may be the only way that something close to “universal” reach is actually realized.
A private approach to pre-K  might also be less expensive. The President has proposed to spend $75 billion a year over the next ten years to mount a near-universal pre-K program.  Charitable giving of all forms totals only about $300 billion a year. But government spending also comes with costs; in the case of the White House proposal, a requirement that teachers have the same sort of credentials as current public school teachers—implying union wage scales. (Notably, the American Montessori Society accepts community college degrees for accrediting teachers—but requires that they master classroom methods.) That leaves out a place for volunteers—who might well be drawn to help in such a cause. Moreover, in an effort to build political support, the White House has dangled the possibility of funding for middle-income families—which would increase costs yet more.  A privately-led initiative might, instead,   identify—and focus its resources—only on those most in need.
Such an approach is not fanciful. In recent years, national networks have actually developed to support locally-based programs addressing a variety of social problems. Village to Village helps establish programs to enable  the elderly “age in place,” rather than going to nursing homes.   Volunteers in Medicine provides free,  basic health care for the uninsured.  Both are active now in more than 90 cities. No one philanthropic source could fund a pre-K movement. Private foundations, as well as donor-advised funds,  could play a role, however. Perhaps, under the right conditions, government could help—so long as it did not dictate the terms. Charter schools—flexible in their staffing and methods, and which already have shown they can combine public and private funding sources effectively (see, for instance, the KIPP Schools network) might be good models.
The larger point here is this. Government funding is not something to be opposed  in principle—but the years since the War on Poverty have made clear that social programs that require individual, hands-on attention are not something government does well. There is a temptation to look to public funding for them—because it seems to offer a way to achieve universal reach. But reach and grasp are different things—and government has not shown it can combine “scale” with positive results. (See the track record not just for Head Start but for community mental health programs, foster care, job training and so many other social programs).
Imagine a coalition of major community foundations coming forward, along with the major foundations with an established interest in disadvantaged children and education (Gates, Broad, Annie E. Casey) to support a national pre-K movement. It might not require us to depend on taxing an activity we wish would actually decrease (smoking)—and it might actually work.

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