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Hicks: Pence was right to reject federal pre-K funding

November 8, 2014

Mike HicksFaithful readers of this column will recall that I believe robust public early childhood education offers significant benefits to taxpayers. My beliefs were formed the old-fashioned way. I read nearly all the serious research on the matter and contributed some analysis. My conclusions were that the benefits are broad, enduring and important.

Given my understanding of and strong support for early childhood education programs, you might suppose I think Gov. Pence mistaken in his decision to forgo some $85 million in federal support for early childhood education. I do not. Accepting this money would have been easy, popular and wrong. Here is why.

Indiana state and local government pays for education. This shifts resources from rich to poor communities and comprises well over $6 billion per year in state spending alone, or more than $5,000 per student. But quite incredibly, last year Hoosier taxpayers sent more than $1 billion to the U.S. Department of Education in the form of federal income and corporate taxes. That is about one-sixth of our entire state budget being spent on public education in Indiana.

The federal Department of Education has no actual mission to educate anyone. It simply gathers data and filters these dollars through a large bureaucracy and sends some back to us. The returning dollars come with enormous strings attached (as anyone who has ever received a federal grant can attest). So, the federal early childhood education dollars are as likely to hamstring innovation and effective programs as promote them. Indiana is wise to view them with great caution. But that is only half the issue.

The difficult and politically unpleasant truth about early childhood education is that it largely works by intervening when families have failed. Only a small share of kids, maybe one in five, really needs this intervention, and knowing where and how to do this is part of Indiana’s current pilot programs. The real benefits aren’t academic but behavioral, and a large federal program is almost certain to miss the mark. As long as we have failing families, there will be a role for early childhood education, but not just any program.

Federal interventions into early childhood education, including the unbelievably costly Head Start Program, demonstrate no net benefits. This is because the federal government cannot effectively structure rules about intervening in families. This is quite simply not what any government does well. We must depend on churches and community groups.

It sure wasn’t popular and might well have been bad politics, but Pence made the right call with federal dollars for early childhood education.•

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Hicks is the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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