Preschool: Government Is a Poor Teacher of Self-Control

August 17, 2014

“Amid all of the daunting challenges facing Indianapolis, and despite the deep concern about growing poverty and increasing crime, the city now has an opportunity to help thousands of at-risk children and, along the way, set the stage for generations of repaid dividends.” — Matt Tulley, Indianapolis Star, Aug. 15

by Hang La

Democrats in the Indiana Senate are pushing for universal pre-kindergarten while the Republican governor focuses on low-income children. An independent survey of the research, however, indicates that whether the programs are universal or targeted, they will likely fail to meet their promise.

That is because government money does not deliver justifiable results in the complicated and as yet poorly understood world of early-childhood education, according to the survey published in the fall edition of The Indiana Policy Review. Government involvement, moreover, brings with it a distorted incentive structure, especially in this context.

For example, a recent report from the U.S Government Accountability Office exposed fraud committed by Head Start centers in six states and the District of Columbia. Employees there misrepresented children’s information, likely as a deliberate attempt to enroll high-income children at the expense of legitimate, low-income children. Such corruption is a consequence of the system’s misplaced incentives. Any state-funded system, instead of being answerable to parents and children, will be accountable to a bureaucracy, one that will vary wildly in its expertise and commitment to helping children.

No matter how well intentioned, pre-kindergarten gets mired in a political game in which different groups compete for public resources, power and privileges. As Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, one of those groups, the teachers’ union, champions universal pre-kindergarten because it would be a rich source of union jobs.

This is not to dismiss either the existence of high-quality public pre-kindergarten or the usefulness of the early research on childhood education. The conclusion, though, is that expanding public pre-kindergarten yields more cost than benefit — tremendously so.

If that were understood, the governor and Legislature would more carefully consider government-mandated and funded preschool. They would more exactly balance the uncertain benefits of early-childhood education with the certain expansion of an already inefficient and bureaucratized public-education system.

All of which is warning that Indiana is unlikely to teach children what is most needed through public pre-kindergarten programs — that is, the virtue of self-control. The government-driven models reviewed tended to be carelessly and confusingly conceptualized. They often were only poor-quality reproductions of smaller, more controlled experiments and could not guarantee significant returns on a child’s education.

More importantly, the very nature of these programs predisposes them to politicization, thereby stymieing meaningful reform and wasting precious resources — not the least being the hopes and energies of low-income children and their families.

Finally, we are reminded that children have been socialized since the beginning of time outside of government’s purview. Indeed, the successful preschool experiments surveyed have all confirmed that family and parenting play the more crucial and direct role in the development of a child’s self-control.

For now, it is important to know this: The education systems that will teach our children how to follow their individual paths to becoming loving family members, helpful neighbors and constructive citizens not only rest within the mechanisms of a free society but constitute the means to such a society.

Hang La, a researcher at the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a senior history major at DePauw University from Hanoi, Vietnam. She is a recipient of the DePauw President’s Award for Excellence.



Bryce Covert. “Indiana Lawmakers Push for Universal Preschool,” ThinkProgress Sept. 13, 2013. Accessed July 30, 2014.

U.S Government Accountability Office. “Undercover Testing Finds Fraud and Abuse at Selected Head Start Centers,” Highlights of GAO-10-1049. Accessed July 30, 2014.

Jason L. Riley. “Preschool Poppycock,” The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2014. Accessed July 30, 2014.

Cecil Bohanon. “Adam Smith and the Rationale of Preschool,” The Indiana Policy Review. Last modified Nov. 11, 2013, accessed July 7, 2014,



Leave a Reply