Friday, September 30, 2005

Iowa Business Council on taxpayer financed productivity

The Iowa Business Council is makin' noise over the need to “enhance” early childhood education. This past Sunday, in David Elbert’s press release rewrite of a column, the Business Council types waxed on about the importance of early childhood while shilling for their ECD forum. And yesterday, we got Vilsack’s second act on early childhood education policy. As reported by Radio Iowa:

Governor Tom Vilsack will ask legislators in January to spend more state money on preschool programs. "One may ask 'Where is the money going to come from?' well, I would suggest to you it is a priority and in your family budgets, in your business budgets, in your state budget, priorities get funded," Vilsack says. … He says preschool shouldn't just be for really poor kids who qualify for government-financed "Head Start" or for really rich kids whose parents can afford to pay for preschool. The governor says for the U.S. to retain its edge in the world market, the imagination of all American kids must continue to be fostered and that must start in preschool. … part of the new money he'll ask for will be spent trying to boost the salaries of preschool teachers. "A lot of us talk about the importance of youngsters...yet we are content to allow basically minimum wage to be paid to those who care for our children," Vilsack says. Vilsack made his comments this (Thursday) morning during a speech at forum the Iowa Business Council sponsored to discuss the status of early childhood education.

It is a little suspect that the business guys are so interested in early childhood issues, until you realize it’s all about subsidizing employee productivity. The only reason businesses are at the table on this issue is it helps their bottom line. If parents perceive that their kids are “well taken care of”, then they’re going to be able to focus on their jobs and not their kids.

It makes perfect sense. We get the state, and by default the taxpayers, to foot the bill for what is in effect subsidized childcare. If you are putting kids into state subsidized preschool, regardless of a parent’s income, it’ll shave a year or two off childcare costs. That is great if you have babies or are thinking about having babies, but it doesn’t do much for the Iowa grandparents jetting East to visit the grandkids.

There is no disputing the value of early childhood education, both the social and individual return on investment is quite remarkable. Remember, we’re talking about an investments’ return and, frankly, it’s not a real brain twister to figure out that spending money to insure preschool for an at-risk child who otherwise might not attend a preschool program is a great investment as, oh, compared to encouraging housewives to go for those advanced degrees.

The crux of the problem is who pays. According to Vilsack, the state should subsidize all preschool, not limiting those state subsidies to income tests. However, the Minneapolis Fed studies suggest that the most efficacious use of tax dollars for early childhood education is in subsidizing preschool access for at-risk families. The studies do not suggest subsidizing preschool for every student, and, in fact, intimate that doing so may not be the best use of tax dollars. Then again, these guys waste other people’s money all the time, so pile it on Gov.

Some sort of compromise will emerge out of all of this education talk; Vilsack will get his early childhood program (this is all about Rob Reiner & his Palm files) and the GOP will get their early out to college plan. The difficult part is that it'll end up an expensive policy compromise: given that all we're doing is shifting the k-12 schedule, so instead of entering a "kindergarten" program at five they enter at four and then exit high school after their junior year at age seventeen.

Seventeen—hard to think about adding five years to our twelve year old and sending him out the door.


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