Compared to our counterparts in the developed world, the United States is a wealthy nation of dummies and dropouts. A few years ago, American 15-year-olds were ranked 17th in science and an unimpressive 25th in math when compared with their peers in other countries.
Does it have to be this way? Of course not. In fact, for decades, experts in early-childhood education have argued that a relatively direct way to improve school achievement is to enroll all children in preschool.
President Obama made a pitch for just such a program in his State of the Union address, but he might as well have requested the moon, lassoed and gift-boxed.
Obama's plan is to get states to expand offerings for prekindergarten through federal matching dollars, incentives and grants. Such programs have long been linked to improved high school graduation rates. Yet only 28 percent of America's 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program in the 2010-2011 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Note that Obama didn't say preschool attendance should be mandatory. Big Brother is not issuing a mandate to gather up all the 3- and 4-year-olds and march them off to classrooms for indoctrination. But the family values crowd won't believe that for a minute. For decades, they have promoted the idea that government-sponsored early-childhood education is a threat to family, faith and civilization. They are not going to let Obama's program get through Congress without a fight.
On the right, proposals to expand preschool programs have long been met with twisted conspiracy theorizing about how the rights of parents will be undercut. As historian Rick Perlstein noted recently in The Nation magazine, President Richard Nixon bowed to pressure from a well-orchestrated letter-writing campaign by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in 1971 and vetoed popular, bipartisan legislation that would have created preschool programs. In his veto letter, Nixon claimed the bill would have promoted "communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach." The same rationale will be wheeled out to oppose Obama's new initiative. Unfortunately, bizarre attitudes like this are ingrained in the dysfunctional approach America takes to education in general. We view it as a birthright lottery. Children lucky enough to be born to better-educated, middle-class parents get the best slots in the best-performing schools. Other children ... well, they attend different schools.
Shortly after Obama fleshed out the plan in an appearance at an early-learning center in Georgia, House Speaker John Boehner slammed it, saying federal involvement in such schooling was "a good way to screw it up."
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) argued that more research was needed to determine if programs such as Head Start, which enrolls more than 1 million low-income children, are effective.
The research has been done. A 2009 policy paper by the National Institute for Early Education Research concluded, "When the public funds programs for the poor rather than for everyone, the majority of voters may be unwilling to pay for a high-quality program for a small portion of the population, despite its relatively low total cost." In other words, if the program is for the poor kids, a lower-quality program is too often deemed good enough. Make a program available to everyone's kids and its quality improves. Other research has shown that expanding prekindergarten offerings would benefit children at all class levels.
For decades, families with the resources to do so have solved the problem of poor school quality simply by moving to another area with better schools. This "every child for him- or herself" approach to education has resulted in even greater disparities in school quality, and it must not be allowed to undermine this latest proposal.
We all pay for the costs of not educating all children well. America needs the brainpower, talents and labor of all its children. Savvy business owners know that to get the most out of a workforce, you invest in it at all levels -- not just in management but in the worker bees as well.
The business of running a nation is no different. It's time to invest.
THE KANSAS CITY STAR (Kansas City, Mo.)