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Jewish World Review June 14, 1999 /31 Sivan, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Econophone

Impervious to the evidence

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
WELL, THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE of 2000 has arrived, and you know what that means -- infield practice for columnists.

The candidates will consult their focus groups and polls and then offer up the "scientifically" proven recipes voters will respond to. Political reporters will ignore these proposals utterly, focusing exclusively on how the candidates are doing in the polls and how much money they are raising.

It falls to your servant, and others like her, to examine the policies of our would-be leaders.

Let's start with Vice President Al Gore's recent call for "universal preschool." Speaking in Iowa, the vice president said preschool should no longer be voluntary but should encompass "every child, in every community in America."

His generous friends at the National Education Association must be smacking their lips over that one. (They will savor his whole package, which also includes hiring 2.2 million new teachers and paying college students a $10,000 bonus if they elect to become teachers.) Providing preschool education to 20 million new captives, er, clients per year would mean more work and greater pay for teachers.

As with so many Democratic proposals for more government, this one sounds pleasant enough. Preschool programs like Head Start have achieved the status of totem in American politics. Question them, and you are certain to be deemed a heretic.

They are totems because they appeal to the very soul of the liberal project: to equalize life's outcomes for everyone.

Liberals and conservatives look at the lamentable gap between the academic performance of whites and Asians on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics on the other, and see quite different solutions. The first liberal solution is to deny the truth: Kill the offending tests. The Clinton Education Department has proposed to make reliance on tests like the SAT, on which Asians and whites outperform "minorities" (though Asians are, of course, a minority), illegal.

The liberals' second solution is to expand and increase big, federal spending programs that sound benevolent but make absolutely no difference. Exhibit A: preschool intervention.

Gore
As the Cato Institute's Darcy Olsen relates, when Head Start was launched 33 years ago, Lyndon Johnson and his bevy of reformers were certain that they could prevent "poverty's children" from becoming "poverty's captives." By providing early schooling, Head Start would get poor, disadvantaged children ready for kindergarten, would raise their IQs, would divert them from a life of unemployment and crime, and would make them more productive citizens.

The program has had a 33-year run, and has been reauthorized and expanded again and again. It has achieved immortality despite the fact that it doesn't work.

In 1997, the General Accounting Office reviewed all of the studies that had been done on Head Start around the nation and found that while some benefits were found among Head Start kids vs. a control group while the children were enrolled in the program, those benefits disappeared very soon after the children began their formal schooling. Within five years, no difference was found between Head Start and non-Head Start kids.

It's a shame. The world would be a much easier place to live in if well- intended programs like Head Start could really obliterate the effects of poverty, poor parenting and bad schools. But just because the news is unwelcome does not give us license to ignore it.

Conservatives look at data like this and other data -- such as the fact that we are now spending twice as much (inflation adjusted) on primary and secondary education as we did in the 1960s and yet students' performance has plummeted -- and conclude that more spending isn't the answer. More radical yet: Maybe more spending makes the problem worse. If our primary schools are already failing at their principal task -- to teach grades kindergarten through eight -- by what logic shall we hand them ages 3 and 4 to similarly disserve?

Regarding the varying performance of blacks and whites (broadly speaking), perhaps black scores could be improved if so many black children were not trapped in poor schools.

Al Gore wants his education proposals to show his seriousness as a candidate. Instead, what they show is his imperviousness to evidence.


JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.


Up

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©1999, Creators Syndicate