Herein lies the dilemma. The country still needs more investment—a whole lot more—to really change the life trajectory of young kids being raised by poor, single moms. Yet not just any program will do. Research consistently shows that the effectiveness of a program depends almost entirely on the quality of the teacher. Some of the well-established government programs for early learners, like Head Start, do not always stack up. Thus, advocates find themselves in the tough position of pushing lawmakers aggressively just to embrace the issue, which is rarely anybody's top priority. But once they have the attention of policymakers, it's hard to then tell them that their favorite programs may not be up to par.
Katharine Stevens, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, is a perfect embodiment of this conundrum. She recently joined the conservative AEI with a specific mandate to poke holes in the ways that early-childhood programs, new and old, are implemented. If the new initiatives being rolled out by the White House are anything like the current public school system, she says, that's a problem.
From Stevens' perspective, the current K-12 public school system is adequate but certainly not a model that the country should replicate completely for younger kids. "There's almost $30 billion in the New York public school system that fails millions of kids," she said, by way of example.
Stevens also objects to what she says is an over-focus on 4-year-olds. Research suggests that nurse-parent coaching about caring for babies and toddlers is actually far more effective, and yet the social programs to provide those are in their infancy. A $1.7 billion federal maternal and infant home-visiting program was implemented in 2010, and Congress is expected to continue support it, but the program is only a small part of the administration's early-education initiative.
"If you really look at what the early brain-development stuff is saying, 4 is almost too late," she said.
Stevens is paid to be critical and ask tough questions about the effectiveness of government programs. And yet, when asked what she would recommend on her own, she had this to say: "If it were up to me, we would be spending billions and billions more dollars on early education."
It's a sentiment that most parents would agree with, from the wealthy family that pays a consultant to get its kid into an elite private preschool to the poor single mom who would welcome any way to get her child ready for school. The question then becomes how to harness that desire and turn it into action. Public opinion polls show a high level of support, Perry said. "But what we need is public demand."