Most people know that Barack Obama has been pushing for universal health care since his initial campaign in 2008. But did you know that universal preschool has been on his implementation list for just as long?
The “Preschool for All” concept took center stage in his two most recent State of the Union addresses. President Obama has proposed that $75 billion in mandatory funding be allocated “for a Federal-State partnership that would provide high-quality preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, while also creating incentives for States to expand publicly funded preschool services to middle-class families and promoting access to high-quality full-day kindergarten and high-quality early learning programs for children under the age of 4.”
Enter HB 96, Utah School Readiness Initiative – a heavily debated bill passed by the state Legislature but still unsigned by Governor Gary Herbert.
In order for a state to obtain “Preschool for All” money, there are eight qualifications it must have in place legally. Utah has had three of those qualifications in statute. HB 96 puts the other five remaining requirements in place. To be clear, supporters of the bill say that obtaining even more federal funding isn’t the goal of the bill. But the lure of more federal dollars is hard to dismiss.
According to directives from the U.S. Department of Education on School Readiness, if we use these federal funds for Utah’s preschool programs “the Federal Government would assume a significant share of the program costs in the first years of the program with States gradually assuming more responsibility over time.” (Sound familiar?) Within eight years, Utah will have to pick up 100 percent of the cost – after the state has been lured by “cheap” money to enroll as many children as possible regardless of real need.
HB 96 is, fiscally speaking, like using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat. Early education works for children whose home lives are worse than day care. Most little children are better off at home and tax dollars are better spent on the special needs of truly impoverished children.
Supporters of the bill have described it as targeting at-risk children in poverty. That claim is factually incorrect. According to the bill, two children living with married parents in 2012 with a household income of $43,000 would have been considered “eligible students.” In fact, these children fall into the middle quintile of household income distribution – the very definition of “middle class,” not children of poverty.
Beyond hypothetical examples, there are more concrete illustrations that underscore how describing HB 96 as targeting children in poverty is inaccurate. The anticipated number of children described by the bill as “economically disadvantaged” is telling. In 2012, nearly 40 percent of all children in Utah public schools would have been considered “economically disadvantaged” – a far cry from Utah’s actual 15 percent child-poverty rate for that year.
HB 96 has been designed to incorporate large numbers of middle-income children in the “at risk” category, thereby actually harming truly “at risk” children. Governor Herbert is not naturally inclined to veto such feel-good proposals. But this is one bill he ought to reconsider.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
 U.S. Department of Education SCHOOL READINESS Fiscal Year 2014 Request, p. C-10