Next November, voters will go to the polls to elect a new Congress and decide whether Donald Trump serves a second term as president. San Antonians will face another notable decision: whether to extend the “Pre-K for SA” program for another eight years. Its champion, former Mayor Julian Castro, is running for president, and he’s making education reform a prominent part of his campaign.
In the dizzying array of Democratic presidential contenders who support universal preschool, the plans put forth by Castro and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren stand out. Although they share the same goals of driving down the cost and expanding access to “high-quality” preschools, they differ somewhat in how they’d get there.
Government Has Made Child Care More Expensive
Under Warren’s proposal, folks making less than $50,000 per year would pay nothing, and everyone else would pay no more than 7 percent of their respective income for pre-schooling care, a figure determined by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to be “affordable.” Castro does not appear to make any such distinction.
On the other hand, while he intends to fund his framework “through a grant program to state and local governments,” hers resembles more of a top-down approach to “establish … a network” of “learning centers and family child care homes.” Both believe “corporations” and “millionaires” can foot the bill.
Many folks can sympathize with Warren’s personal story about securing child care. My daughters’ mother and I interviewed and tried out a few before settling on facilities with which we were comfortable. It’s not a task to be taken lightly, and just like any parents with a limited budget, we were happy to say goodbye to the expense.
Even though it figures ignominiously on Mark J. Perry’s “Chart of the Century,” child care has actually been one of the least inflationary components of a group that has seen a shrinking rate of growth in the consumer price index. When the growth of the industry and declining birth rates are factored in, this makes sense.
In fact, more than one study has shown that government regulations, regardless of jurisdiction, play a prominent role in keeping tuition from dropping to a natural price level, a problem acknowledged in a recent White House report. All that’s to say nothing of programs that currently subsidize child care, whether via direct spending or tax credits. It’s no coincidence that this combination of factors has resulted in artificially higher prices.
Parents Are Not ‘Held Back’ by Caring for Their Kids
Upon reading Warren’s plan, which is somewhat more detailed than Castro’s, one is struck by some of its sweeping presumptions, such as that parents are being “held back from career and educational opportunities.”
We all make tradeoffs in our lives, and many parents willingly trade wage-paying jobs for the most important job we’ll ever have. Some may choose to keep one foot in each door and work flex schedules, while extended family are happy to fill gaps. These types of compromises may remain well through elementary school until extracurricular activities start to take over.
Folks who make such adjustments might be hard-pressed to buy into the fact that politicians from thousands of miles away have their children’s best interests at heart more than they do. Having diktats foisted upon them by self-assured bureaucrats could be construed as insulting.
It would be cheaper, though, right? After handing over such personal information as pay stubs to determine income, and acquiescing to a federally approved curriculum, it would indeed be less expensive for parents in the short term, until they’re paying the taxes for everyone else’s kids to get the same.
Assuming they don’t come to resemble the DMV, these artificially priced, “federally-supported child care” providers would run some local private operators out of business. Two things could happen as a result.
One, more discerning parents who liked the provider they had, but weren’t able to keep it (sound familiar?) because it couldn’t compete with the “public option” could very well choose to exit the labor force rather than further yield to the state—a most unintended of consequences.
Two, those who choose the state option would fuel its initial growth beyond original estimates. Add in the mandate that workers be paid above-market wages, and watch this line item in government budgets grow. Throw in the distinct possibility of a push for unionization among these now-government workers, and watch it never go away, even as it careens down the inevitable path of other public services like the U.S. Postal Service.
Entitlement Programs Separate Us from True Costs
Furthermore, this new entitlement would be similar to insurance in that the consumers would be shielded from the true cost of the service. This is one reason health-care costs far outpace those of other goods and services (per Perry’s chart).
It’s possible that the mayoral runoff on June 8 could play a role in “Pre-K for SA”’s renewal. Current Mayor Ron Nirenberg gives it his unequivocal support, while his challenger, former city councilman Greg Brockhouse, is more circumspect. If it’s deemed a success, then not only are voters likely to renew it but the citywide sales tax structure that funds it could be used as a template for public school reform. Other localities might even emulate it, but that’s where it should stop.
The federal government has a spending problem, and Americans have a dependency problem. Politicians, too many Republicans as well as nearly all Democrats, are all too eager to fill the role of our pusher, appearing as if they’re “doing something” when in reality what they’re doing is absolving us of our personal responsibility, eroding the fabric of our local community, and selling us on the notion that we can have something for nothing. For evidence of the latter, look no further than the growing enchantment with the mystical Modern Monetary Theory.
Just like education, traffic laws, and trash pickup, child care is a local issue, best handled by people closest to the action. One suspects that our system of constitutional federalism, not to mention the disincentives embedded in these universal preschool schemes, do not figure prominently in their respective lesson plans.