Helping Children Flourish: Early Childhood Policies That Empower Families

By Max Eden

What should conservatives be for when it comes to early childhood education? In 2012, the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess wrote that on education policy, “conservatives are nothing if not confused.”1 A central cause for that confusion: The bipartisan education reform project of the past several decades has been a shotgun marriage between the social justice left and the big business right.

Key Points:

  • Universal pre-K, a core tenant of progressives’ early childhood agenda, would give Washington even greater power to raise our nation’s children, supplanting the fundamental role of the family.
  • Small, intensively resourced childcare programs serving deeply disadvantage students have yielded strong benefits for children, but evidence suggests universal pre-K programs with fewer resources can have negative effects on many children.
  • Conservative responses to ever-expanding state authority must be grounded in the primacy of the family, and early childhood policies must seek to help families raise their children themselves.
  • The government should fund generous education savings accounts, allowing parents to spend on a wide range of educational goods for their children and supporting parents raising their children.

The social justice left views education as the key to transforming society; the big business right views education as the key to workforce development. The social left marketed its vision to the business right with the window dressing of “return on investment.” Clear-eyed evaluation of the product—much less a truly principled approach to the issue—has been all but entirely absent.

Somewhat ironically, conservatives are confused about early childhood education because they have lost sight of what they say they care most about: the importance of the family—or, to put a more precise policy gloss on it, the importance of the family environment to early childhood development. This chapter is an analytic attempt to reorient conservative policymakers toward the primary importance of a healthy home for young children.

The Social Scientific Sleight of Hand

When President Barack Obama tried to sell Republicans on his early childhood and pre-K proposal in 2015, which would have massively expanded public pre-K, he declared that for “every dollar we put into high-quality early childhood education we get $7 back in reduced teen pregnancy, improved graduation rates, improved performance in school, [and] reduced incarceration rates. The society as a whole does better.”2 But the Washington Post gave President Obama “two Pinocchios” for this claim, noting that although he sourced his claim to rigorous studies, none of those studies “fit directly with [Obama’s] proposal, on a national scale.”3

Unfortunately, the reality behind this social science sleight of hand is far worse than the Washington Post let on. A full forensic account of the literature suggests that center-based early childcare expansion would likely actually yield a substantially negative return on investment.

On the one hand, the results of public pre-K appear dramatically positive when early childhood advocates market findings from two key case studies: Perry Preschool4 and Abecedarian.5 Even more striking, the positive results from Perry have a multigenerational effect—holding for not only children who participate but even their children.6 These studies were randomized controlled trials, the gold standard for internal validity (i.e., we can trust that the results are real and not statistical artifact).

But neither study has any external validity (i.e., reliability of result extrapolation), because they do not remotely resemble the policy proposals up for debate. The logical fallacy committed by early education advocates can be justly paraphrased: Because we have strong evidence that small, intensively resourced programs serving deeply disadvantaged students yielded strong benefits, we know that large-scale, less-resourced programs serving all students will also yield strong benefits.

The study with the strongest combination of internal and external validity for the purposes of America’s childcare expansion debate comes to us from Canada’s Quebec Family Program. In the late 1990s, Quebec launched a program offering $5-a-day childcare, which increased center-based childcare participation by 14 percentage points relative to the rest of the country. This study’s authors described their results as “striking in their consistent indication of negative impact of universal child care on children in two-parent families.”7

Their findings suggest that childcare caused an increase in hyperactivity, anxiety, and aggression and a deterioration in motor and social skills for these children. Negative outcomes on child health resulted, too, including an estimated increase of 156–394 percent in the likelihood of nose-and-throat infection. The negative effects extended to the parents, too, including a deterioration in quality of marriage, “striking evidence of an increase in depression” among mothers, and a significant rise in “hostile/ineffective” and “aversive” parenting. The researchers concluded that “the consistency of the results suggests that more access to childcare is bad for these children (and, at least along some dimensions, for these parents).”8

When it comes to America-based, means-tested pre-K, the strongest evidence comes from a randomized controlled trial evaluation of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program (TN-VPK). TN-VPK served 18,000 low-income children in nearly 1,000 classrooms managed through traditional public schools, providing strong external validity to assessing the implications of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) pre-K expansion.

Students in this program saw initial gains in “kindergarten readiness,” but by third grade, the results turned negative. TN-VPK students performed substantially worse on reading and math, behaved worse, and were more likely to be diagnosed with disabilities, including speech and language impairment and intellectual disabilities.9 Shortly after the BBB plan failed, updated results from the TN-VPK study were published. When students were measured until sixth grade, the negative results persisted and, across some metrics, actually increased. This was widely reported as a “surprising” negative result, even though it was consistent with the earlier study and the literature as a whole.

It’s also necessary to properly consider the results of Head Start. The landmark randomized controlled trial study of Head Start also shows gains in kindergarten readiness, but those results faded to insignificance by third grade.10 Some conservatives have taken this as evidence that Head Start “doesn’t work.”11

But just as kindergarten readiness is an inadequate metric, so too are third-grade results. Studies have demonstrated that short- and long-run outcomes don’t always align. There was a fade effect in the Perry Preschool study, yet it still yielded striking long-term benefits.12

Harvard economist David Deming conducted a long-term study on the effects of Head Start by comparing siblings who attended Head Start between 1984 and 1990. He found that although test-score gains faded, especially for African American children, there were still substantial long-run gains. Head Start participants evinced a reduced likelihood of grade repetition, decreased likelihood of a learning disability diagnosis, decreased reports of idleness, and improved physical health. Deming concluded that the gains were “one third of the size of the outcome gap between the bottom quartile and the median . . . and [were] about 80 percent as large as the gains from the Perry Preschool and . . . Abecedarian model preschool programs.”13 Strikingly positive.

But in 2019, a student of Deming’s tracked the cohort he studied over a longer time horizon and used his method to evaluate another cohort of students born between 1986 and 1996. That study found that despite the early gains, Deming’s cohort actually experienced no boost in college graduation or earnings. It further found strikingly negative effects for the next cohort of students. Compared to the previous cohort, they were more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability, exhibit problematic behavior, commit crimes, have children as teenagers, and be idle, and they were less likely to attend college.14

These conflicting results could be attributable to a secular change in which of their children poor parents decided to send to Head Start. But a stronger hypothesis that accounts for not only all the results described above but also a study from Italy that found strong negative IQ effects for children from higher-income families15 is that the true key to outcomes is the quality of a child’s early environment. Advances in neuroscience suggest that early childhood environments leave a lasting, even physical, imprint on the developing brain. If those environments are healthier, child development can be strengthened. If they are less healthy, child development can be harmed.16

This pattern is also consistent with biological studies of the diurnal pattern and amounts of the stress hormone cortisol excreted in toddlers as they experience the environment of center-based childcare.17 For children from deeply disadvantaged and dysfunctional home environments, childcare can provide a healthier alternative setting. But for children from less dysfunctional and middle-class households, childcare can prove a less healthy alternative.

The only reason these results are not intuitively obvious is that we have somehow forgotten the paramount importance of the family. Early childcare advocates routinely invoke Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman, who studied the Perry Preschool Program, to justify their proposed expansions. But Heckman himself evinced skepticism of universal childcare and preschool, explaining, “I have never supported universal pre-school. . . . The ‘intervention’ that a loving, resourceful family gives to its children has huge benefits that, unfortunately, have never been measured well.”18

Conservatives have so fundamentally misread the academic literature on childcare and pre-K in part because they have been presented with misleading findings and given insufficient context. But this is also partly because of a natural blind spot inherent in the evidence-based policymaking enterprise. We can’t truly measure the importance of the family. We can only find certain signals of it through the noise of studies on policy interventions tangential to it.

Furthermore, so long as early childhood expansion was sold as modest expansions on existing programs, conservatives were not exactly invited to consider the bigger picture. But this last fact changed during the debate around President Biden’s BBB program.

“Building Back” Without Families

President Biden’s BBB plan was hardly a modest proposal.19 He wanted to offer two additional years of free public preschool to all families and deeply subsidize universal childcare. This was marketed to the public as a means to better facilitate female workforce participation. But it also clearly presented the social vision of a state that assumes responsibility for rearing children from the day they are born.

It became clear that there was no room for church-based community in the Biden administration’s vision for early childhood. If the Biden administration had chosen, it could have expanded the $10 billion Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG).

CCDBG was a bipartisan compromise both sides used to be happy with. It offered low-income parents vouchers (named “certificates”) that provided them with the purchasing power and flexibility to send their children to childcare centers of their choice. And many parents’ first choice was religious-based childcare. But Biden’s BBB proposal aimed to undercut that compromise by subjecting all federal funding to the full burden of federal regulation, a burden that most church-based childcare centers are ill-equipped to manage. To boot, it included and excluded causes in a way that evinced a probably unconstitutional antagonism against religious childcare.20

The Biden administration ultimately recanted this particular anti-religious effort—but not before the issue became a major sticking point for the handful of moderate Democratic senators.21 This controversy became one of the reasons Biden’s initial BBB plan failed in the Senate.

Aside from this apparent antagonism, it must also be mentioned that the simple shape of the plan was vastly out of sync with many Americans’ desires. According to polling from American Compass, a majority of married mothers would prefer to have one partner working full-time and one partner staying home to care for children under age 5. A strong plurality of single mothers would prefer the same. Strong pluralities of lower-, working-, and middle-class families would also prefer one parent working full-time and the other parent staying home to care for children.22 This is all entirely natural and consistent with the historical nature of the human experience.

The only group that prefers to have both parents working full-time with children being largely raised by childcare centers is the upper class. Although American Compass did not display the precise cross tabulation, it’s essentially certain that vastly more upper-class liberals prefer this, compared to upper-class conservatives.

The BBB plan, then, could be understood as an effort to impose the preferences of upper-class liberals on the rest of America, which holds different preferences. The state stepping in to assume authority to raise children, against the broadly expressed wishes of the polity, may remind some readers of Plato’s Republic. It may remind others of Alexis de Tocqueville’s prediction of soft despotism:

It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them. I do not question that, in an age of instruction and equality like our own, sovereigns might more easily succeed in collecting all political power into their own hands and might interfere more habitually and decidedly with the circle of private interests than any sovereign of antiquity could ever do. . . .

I do not fear that in their chiefs [Americans] will find tyrants, but rather schoolmasters. . . .

I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.23

Although universal pre-K would not introduce a formal state compulsion to turn young children over to state-run facilities, social expectation and economic necessity would increasingly militate toward it. The social scientific literature suggests that putting young children under the tutelage of government-run centers would be substantially detrimental for their cognitive and, perhaps, moral development. A generation less fitted for self-government would likely then, in turn, argue for more character-degrading government interventions, which would lead to a less individuated mass of citizens—or subjects.

Putting Family First Again

After taking an honest look at the data and remembering our true first principles, the conservative approach to early childhood policy should become far less confused—and far more politically popular. The North Star of conservative early education policymaking should be bolstering—not undermining—the original social contract Americans made on public education. This contract holds that the family is the primary, pre-political unit and legitimate and well-directed policy should help families raise their children, rather than insinuate itself or its vision between the parent and the child. Put more plainly, the salable political vision is: We want to help you raise your children.

With the CCDBG, conservatives agreed to not call vouchers “vouchers,” but rather “certificates.” This was satisfactory, because label compromise notwithstanding, these certificates functioned as vouchers that could be redeemed in a system of relatively limited regulation.

Unfortunately, as time has gone on, further regulations promulgated with an eye toward improving childcare quality appear to have reduced the number and diversity of participating childcare providers.24 If and when Republicans gain full control of Congress and have the presidency, they should have at the top of their to-do list to transition all federal early childhood subsidies into vouchers—or into something even more free and open than vouchers.

The core of the conservative school choice movement has moved beyond vouchers to education savings accounts (ESAs). Vouchers can only be redeemed within a system of state regulation and accreditation. Some voucher programs are launched with quality-control strings that can limit school participation.25 Policymakers can add more strings over time.26 And private school accreditors can add de facto ideological regulation above and beyond the formal regulations. The voucher structure is, therefore, inherently vulnerable to regulatory creep and ideological capture that could reduce the diversity of participating schools.

ESAs, by contrast, fund families directly. The term ESA is, indeed, a slight misnomer, as the mechanism is less a savings account than a debit card system. Money is deposited into a debit card, and parents may use that money on any permissible education expense, with a truly expansive understanding of what is educational. It doesn’t have to be a school. It could be tutoring, horseback riding lessons, music lessons, or art lessons.

Such flexibility for parents is profoundly more important in a child’s early years, when multidisciplinary forms of parent-driven enrichment are far more likely to support robust and holistic child development than the routinized “drill and kill” instruction all too often on offer from public pre-K programs. (Any policymaker who wishes to lead on this would do well to read Erika Christakis’s book The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups for an enlightening discussion of the profound opportunity cost of a bureaucratically managed childcare and pre-K sector.)27

Conservative policymakers need to focus on early childhood ESAs. Rather than aim to extract children from their mothers and fathers from the moment of birth, conservatives can use ESAs to start directly supporting families from perhaps even the moment of conception. Every unborn child could qualify the family for an ESA, into which public and private money can start flowing to support mothers and families—even and perhaps especially while the child is in utero.

Early environments leave a profound impact, and studies suggest that the earliest environment may leave the most profound impact of all.28 Mothers need resources—financial and, to a limited degree, educational—for providing the greatest possible bodily care for their unborn children. Relatively small but proper “investments” in nutrition during pregnancy promise to yield an exponentially higher return on investment than Biden’s BBB plan—and at fractions of pennies on the dollar.

Beyond this literally pronatalist early investment, a better use of public dollars than the status quo would be to send them directly into parents’ pockets, from the child’s point of birth through kindergarten (and ideally, ultimately, well beyond that). One randomized controlled trial study, for example, has shown that cash gifts given directly to mothers when their children are born can create conditions that substantively affect their child’s brain activity by the time they turn 1 year old.29 Providing dedicated money—even if in a relatively small amount—to support early childhood maternal care would provide the “nudge” (to steal that misused term) necessary to prompt mothers to consider the paramount importance of providing a nurturing environment for their infants and toddlers.

Studies have shown that something as simple as intentionally narrating the world in conversation with a child has been shown to far exceed the benefits of center-based childcare.30 Yet, though it is perhaps politically incorrect to say this, many parents are insufficiently aware of the science-based case for the benefits of “serve and return” interactions with infants and toddlers.

If parents prefer, they certainly could direct this subsidy to childcare centers. Although, as we’ve seen from the American Compass poll, this is really only affluent liberals’ preference. Most families prefer to have one full-time breadwinner and one full-time caretaker. Early childhood ESAs could, then, be at the center of a broader reorientation of conservative family policy that respects and serves the natural and stated preferences of families.

The exact structure and dollar distribution of early childhood ESAs is an excellent subject open for intra-conservative debate. There is certain to be a push from one faction of the conservative movement for keeping this program means-tested rather than universal. In my judgment, that would be a mistake. Early childhood ESAs could be sold to the public as part of the renewal of America’s original social contract: The government exists to serve families, not subvert them.

There is certainly a strong case for income redistribution, but income redistribution should be conducted not by qualification or disqualification from a means-tested program, but rather by the distribution of funds in a universal system. Poor and working-class American families need—and perhaps deserve—more support than middle- and upper-class families do. But all families should be eligible, with aid weighted based on economic circumstance.

The $10 billion from CCDBG is a starting point for this finance-model reorientation, but it frankly would not provide sufficient funds to execute it. Federal policymakers should redirect Head Start, federal kindergarten, and other funding streams to flow directly into ESAs. It should not be too ambitious to consider reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to set high school graduation at 11th rather than 12th grade, so that instead of servicing the largely superfluous senior year of high school, up to $15,000 of combined federal, state, and local taxpayer dollars can instead flow into parents’ pockets during the far more important first five years of a child’s life.

In addition to funding ESAs with public dollars, the federal government should allow individuals and organizations to continue funding ESAs in a tax-advantaged way. However, Congress should consider expanding the annual contribution limits (up from $2,000 currently) and income limits ($220,000 for a married tax filer).31 The qualified uses of ESAs should also be expanded.

Any such plan is certain to engender manufactured political outrage. Conservatives should pay absolutely no heed to this. In the context of school choice, Jason Bedrick has shown that no matter how mild the reform, Democratic politicians will ring a five-alarm fire about “destroying public education” and the like.32 Whether the program is extremely small or ambitiously large, the political propaganda response will not actually be responsive to the scope. And progressives should heed his lesson: If they’ll “call wolf” at sheep, then conservatives should go big rather than small.

Ultimately, an early childhood ESA could prove a bigger boon to the school choice movement than two decades of bipartisan advocacy have managed to accomplish. When parents become accustomed to leveraging public money to direct their child’s education, many will want to continue that practice after their children turn 5 years old. But more importantly than that, it will help mothers and fathers raise children who flourish.