Free preschool may not be a golden ticket

Although the goal of the reform may be laudable, it is not clear that it will benefit our children, and may in the long have harmful effects.

kids with books 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kids with books 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The government decided to give “free” education from age three to encourage labor participation.
Many claim that today it doesn’t pay for both parents to work because of the cost of daycare. The advocates of public preschool also argue that early formal education is an investment that pays off in the future by increasing the chance our children will have to succeed in school and to become productive member of our society.
Although the goal of the reform may be laudable, it is not clear that it will benefit our children, and may in the long have harmful effects. Many scientific studies around the world have failed to show a direct correlation between attending school at an early age and succeeding on high school matriculation exams.
The few studies that found a positive effect also found that early education had no meaningful long-term effects on the cognitive, social and emotional development of children. After less than two years, there was no difference between children who attended preschool and those who didn’t. In fact, many psychologists and education specialists warn that preschool education is inappropriate for some children and can hurt their development. It is also very clear that the quality of the preschool education plays a dramatic role in the final outcome.
It is doubtful that the Education Ministry will succeed with regard to preschool education when it has dramatically and repeatedly failed with regard to the education of our children from 1st to 12th grade. It is no secret that Israeli students score lower than many of their OECD counterparts on international standardized tests or that Israelis schools are plagued by violence, lack of discipline, and underachievement.
In a survey sponsored by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies and administered by Daraf in 2010, 74 percent of Israelis are dissatisfied (31%) or strongly dissatisfied (42%) with the current education system. Will putting our three-yearold children into the very education system that cannot educate her/him properly from age six improve his/her chance to succeed academically and socially? It is also worth remembering that “free” education only means “paid for by taxes” instead of out of parents’ pockets. To finance preschool programs the government will have to cut other government expenses, raise taxes, or borrow money. Politicians will not relinquish the opportunity to be photographed with children and the increased popularity they will enjoy from “giving” to children. However, those same children will one day be adults, pay taxes and foot the bill of their so-called “free” early education.
It is also likely that the expense per child will be higher in the “free” school system than in the private market of early education. How many layers of bureaucracy, teacher training and infrastructure building will have to be founded through our taxes even before the first hour of teaching is given to our children.
Today, parents of young children have many options for early education, ranging from Savta, home-run mishpachtons to more formal private schools.
Because each provider of preschool services has to compete to attract students, they need to give quality services. It is not unusual, for a private preschool or a home-run day care to close its doors because parents aren’t satisfied. When was the last time a failing public school was closed and its teachers sent home for failing to educate students properly? A dynamic private preschool system also allows for diversity in language of instruction, curriculum, hours of teaching, day structure and many more parameters that parents judge to be important.
Unfortunately, if the government offers “free” education in public schools, it will be almost impossible for private providers to survive and the diversity will disappear forcing each young child into a predefined learning mold.
It is often argued that children from low socioeconomic strata don’t have access to quality preschool and therefore are at a disadvantage with respect to their well-off peers from the start. Unfortunately, as happens now in public schools, poorer children will end up in the worst public preschools and their probability of success will remain much lower than children from better economic backgrounds.
One way to help poor children would be to give them the chance to attend good private daycares and not failing public ones. Clearly, financial aid could be made available, either through tax credits (or negative tax income) when at least one parent works or grants when the household doesn’t count a working parent.
Those grants, also called vouchers, could be distributed not only to poor families but also to middle class families at no extra cost to the taxpayer. In the current reform, the Education Ministry will have to allocate a certain amount of money for each child registered in a “free” public preschool. The same amount of money could be given directly to the parents in a form of a voucher.
Each parent would then pay the preschool they choose to send their children to with this voucher.
In a voucher system, parents, regardless of their economic background will still be able to choose the best daycare option for their children and go to work. Private preschools will be able to survive, compete and strive to give good services and the government won’t have to spend more money building and managing extra public preschools.
The writer is the executive director of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS)