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Early Childhood Education: Who’s In Charge?

Earlier this month, President Obama declared [1] that early childhood education is “one of the best investments we can make” and proposed $1 billion in additional such funding.  His concern is that less than one-third of four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school, and so he proposes that support be extended to provide government-funded education to infants and toddlers as well.

It’s difficult to argue against better education, particularly for the poor.  It sounds good.  And, research [2] has demonstrated that the impact of the environment on poor children’s cognitive development is substantial compared with children in more fortunate economic circumstances.  At the same time, however, eminent child psychologist Jerome Kagan, PhD, points out that past public funding efforts to remediate the problem (e.g., Sesame Street) have actually benefitted the middle class more than the poor.  He goes on to explain that the reason for this has primarily to do with the level of parental involvement, noting that there is a “deep reluctance” [3] among many in the public sphere to acknowledge this.   Yet acknowledge it we must, for the sake of the children.

Who’s in Charge?

The idea of government involvement in education as a public good is not a new idea, and many positive developments have occurred through the emergence of state support for childhood education.  What has shifted in recent decades, however, is the extent to which the government seeks to dictate the content of education and how early it begins doing so.  Hillary Clinton’s famous “It takes a village” in the ‘90s laid the groundwork for more recent, bolder, claims by others.  For example, Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry last year stated [4]:

We have to break through our private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families….  Kids belong to whole communities…and once we realize this we’ll make “better investments” in government indoctrination of children.

This stands in stark contrast to the traditional, historical view [5] of parenting which holds that “Parents have a fundamental right to raise and educate their children as they see fit.  Their authority precedes that of the state.”  Catholic University of America professor Melissa Moschella argues the case for parental authority on the basis of the significant attachment relationship and personal bond that naturally exists between a parent and child.  This bond establishes a primary responsibility of the parent for the child, for his welfare and his education.  To meet this responsibility, she argues, parents have need of the authority to stipulate and convey the most personal aspects of education—those matters related to religion, sexuality and morals.

It is in these most critical spheres of child development that President Obama’s action, and Clinton’s and Harris-Perry’s views of the world which support it, become grave matters.

Where to Invest?

Given the discrepancy between traditional family values (particularly in the realm of sexual issues) and those currently espoused by the secular mainstream, the question of where to invest takes on critical proportions.  The aggressive agenda in the public schools to encourage tolerance of all manner of sexual aberrations and to promote early explorations, and the corresponding lack of support for marital stability and family cohesion, stands in stark contrast to the wisdom of both science [6] and faith [7].  Which is also to say that the earlier governmental intervention begins, the greater the risk to most children.

Traditional values and scientific research both reflect that a child’s best chance at flourishing occurs when his or her parents are actively and substantively involved in his or her education.  Rather than more funding for more public education under the guise of supporting the family, what is truly needed is actual support of the family as the primary educators and formatters of children.  This, and not government indoctrination, is the proper, subsidiary [8], role of the government in fostering the well-being of children.  As alluded to above, the relationship between children and their parents which is imbued with strength and emotional intimacy makes the parents not only responsible for knowing, but actually the best at knowing, what their children need to be flourishing members of their families.  And then, through this, how to contribute most effectively to society as a whole.

Investing in children doesn’t require more money, it requires genuinely supporting parents in charge.