RUSTHOVEN: Preschool works; let’s move ahead

Keywords Opinion / Taking Issue

RusthovenOur City-County Council will soon address funding for Mayor Greg Ballard’s preschool education initiative, the next step toward making it a reality. That step should be taken.

Preschool education has broad support among Indianapolis business and philanthropic leaders. No advocate is more passionate or articulate than Ann Murtlow, president of the United Way of Central Indiana. The “New U” Murtlow leads targets four key areas for helping folks who need it—education, health, income and basic needs. Preschooling for children from low-income families is an education centerpiece.

As Murtlow notes, such children often face education and opportunity gaps from a very early age, putting them at significant disadvantages from first grade onward. “Onward” extends into an adulthood far less likely to include economic success.

But it is more likely to include crime. Murtlow points to studies showing that “at-risk children who do not attend a high-quality preschool are 70-percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.”

There is debate, as there should be, about overall benefits of preschool education. Preschooled children from low-income families start elementary school with an academic edge over non-preschooled peers. But some studies show the edge starts fading within a few years.

Interestingly, other studies show that even if achievement testing differentials diminish, preschooling still has positive impact on high-school graduation rates, reduced crime and teen pregnancy, and future earnings. Why this is so is itself debated, and a topic of other studies.

Most citizens, certainly this one, are ill-equipped to absorb the extensive academic literature, much less critique a given study’s methodology. But I think there are a couple of points that we non-experts should keep in mind.

The first is this: Preschooling is not a panacea, and we should not judge it as if it were proposed as such. Here as elsewhere, the perfect is the enemy of the good. The pertinent inquiry is simply, “Will this be a material improvement over the status quo?”

School choice advocates understand this. Voucher critics commonly argue that some parents won’t care, some parental choices will be ill-informed, some children won’t be helped, and so forth. All true. And all beside the point.

Most parents will care; most will make good choices for their children; and—as abundant data shows—many students will be helped. School choice doesn’t solve everything, but offers a valuable alternative to the desperately sorry state of many urban public school systems.

Preschool programs should be evaluated the same way. There’s a strong case—supporters consider it irrefutable—that preschooling can help some children who need it most. We can discuss how much, how many, and what works best. But it’s certain that many of these children will fail if nothing is done. Let’s help those we can. While we’re at it, we’ll learn more about what’s effective, so we can help more.

The second point involves how we go about this. At one end of the spectrum is the federal government imposing a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution. At the other end, local governments take the lead, working with local business and civic endeavors to implement what works best in their community—and can readily make experience-based adjustments.

Indianapolis is setting the standard for the latter approach. Mayor Ballard, Ann Murtlow and many others deserve our gratitude. Let’s keep moving in the right direction.•

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Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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