On May 2, 2014, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius gave a speech to the Committee for Economic Development. She touted “an exciting investment opportunity.” She claims the investment “promises solid dividends and long-term growth” and states “its payout ratio is so solid that it’s projected to return at least $7 for every dollar that’s put in.” To what investment does the HHS secretary refer? “Infants and toddlers in those precious early years from birth to kindergarten.” (HHS.gov, 5-4-14)
Most parents don’t think of their children as an investment and some may be disturbed to hear a federal official speaking about them in those terms, especially to the Committee for Economic Development. The CED describes itself as “a group of business and education leaders committed to improving the growth and productivity of the U.S. economy, a freer global trading system, and greater opportunity for all Americans.” (CED.org) Parents may not approve of this plan whose aim seems to be to turn out cogs for the industrial machine rather than educated citizens.
While explaining President Obama’s “Early Childhood Package,” Sebelius in her May speech points out other programs that she claims are good for America: the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare; expansion of Medicaid; reauthorization and expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP; and the expansion of Head Start.
Obama’s Early Childhood Package
What is Obama’s Early Childhood Package? According to Sebelius, the plan is that all preschool children “should have an opportunity to be in a high-quality learning environment and acquire social, emotional, and educational skills at the same time.” The first part of the plan is “universal preschool for every four-year-old child in America.” It is unclear whether this is intended to be mandatory. Sebelius offers the following to show just how far behind she thinks America is:
In Japan, virtually every 4-year-old attends preschool. In Britain, 97% of 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool. And by 2020, China plans to provide 80% of its three- and four-year-olds with preschool education.
But is that something that American parents want and are those countries that America wishes to emulate?
Sebelius laments Economist magazine’s assertion that America ranks 26th among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development nation members in percentage of four-year-olds in preschool and 24th for three-year-olds. But maybe some American families prefer to keep their children home during those tender years.
Referring to research by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, Sebelius claims that babies and toddlers “develop 700 new neurological connections every single second,” a phenomenon that is “the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior, and health depend.” Does it not occur to Sebelius and federal officials that many parents choose to be with their own children during this crucial time rather than entrusting them to someone else?
Head Start Grants
The next goal of Obama’s package is to “grow the supply of effective early learning opportunities for our children,” including new “Early Head Start-Child Care partnerships through which we award competitive grants to communities that make Early Head Start available to more families.” Sebelius claims, “We know from a wide array of research that the investments we make in early childhood initiatives put those kids on a path to learn more in school, and earn more in the workplace.” It is unclear to what research she is referring because actual research shows that Head Start is a failed program: any gains made by young children disappear in the early grades and, in fact, there is evidence that some children are harmed by the program. (See April, 2013 Education Reporter)
Yet, as stated at the HHS Administration for Children and Families website, Obama’s plan “will maintain and build on current Head Start investments, to support a greater share of infants, toddlers, and three-year-olds in America’s Head Start centers.” (HHS.gov). The federal government seems intent that infants and toddlers be away from their own homes and enrolled in an institutional setting.
This is also the premise of President Obama’s proposal that “encourages states to expand the availability of full-day kindergarten.” Claiming that “only 6 out of 10 of America’s kindergarten students have access to a full day of learning,” the Obama administration wants all children to spend the “time they need in school to reach rigorous benchmarks and standards.”
Critics worry that this drive to get young children out of family life and into institutions is harmful; they believe young children can learn while being with their own parents and caregivers chosen by their parents.
Voluntary Home Visitation
The final part of Obama’s Early Childhood package is “voluntary home visitation.” The visitations are to be conducted by “nurses, social workers, and other trained professionals.” Sebelius also favorably mentions pediatricians who can “screen for … parental depression.” The visitation program aims to start with low-income families. To some it sounds as if the federal government doubts the ability of low-income parents to parent their own children without federal supervision and monitoring.
Once the visitation program gets started, it is not certain that it would be limited by income levels; the intrusion could soon be manifest in all families. There is little doubt that some want these federal programs to become universal. Sebelius promotes the Health and Human Services “Watch Me Thrive!” program that creates “universal developmental and behavioral screenings, so that we can track a child’s progress in areas like language, social development, and motor development.” In what may seem to some to be double-speak, Sebelius claims these intrusions by the government into the family are “based on the premise that a child’s best and most important teachers are a child’s parents.” As Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
Sebelius’s speech was in part an attempt to gain financial support from the CED and its members; the other funding method she mentions is an increase in the tobacco tax.
Perhaps the most disingenuous part of Sebelius’s speech is when she claims that further federal intrusion into families will result in “more of our kids realiz[ing] their fullest potential” and says it will allow us to “benefit from a new generation of innovation, entrepreneurship, poetry, discovery, art, and progress.” This is said by an official of the same federal government that is pushing Common Core education standards, which spell the death knell for poetry, art, and the individual creativity that leads to discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurship because students are allowed to learn only what is tested on standardized tests.
RTT Early Learning Challenge
The Obama administration’s Race To The Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) has awarded over $1 billion to supposedly “provide a strong start for our nation’s youngest children.” At the Dept. of Education website it states: “RTT-ELC supports states in their systemic efforts to align, coordinate, and improve the quality of existing early learning and development programs across multiple funding streams that support children from birth through age five.” (Ed.gov)
As with Common Core Race to the Top grants, ELC-winning states had to jump through federal hoops in order to be considered winners; they will remain under federal scrutiny, having been given mandates about how awarded money will be spent. As with Common Core, the federal government is asserting control over decisions states should be making on their own and this will result in loss of local control.
HHS Sec. Sebelius will be replaced by Sylvia Burwell. After a stint in the Clinton administration, Burwell moved to Microsoft where she was a key aide to Common Core’s major funder and most powerful champion, Bill Gates. Observers expect that future alliances between the Depts. of Education and Health and Human Services will remain aimed at further diminishing states’ rights in favor of federal bureaucratic control of individuals, families, and education.
But Is It Good For Children?
Contrary to what Sec. Sebelius and her cronies believe, parents know what is best for their children. Swedish educator Jonas Himmelstrand, writing in the Huffington Post Canada (11-5-13), states that “the Swedish approach is that the state has taken over raising children from parents through the state run daycare system.” He notes that as a result of the universal preschool/daycare system in Sweden, “education outcomes are declining, teens are anxiety-ridden and misbehaving, and the quality of parenting is suffering.” Swedish parents accepted the government’s offer of free preschool for children from 18-months-old through kindergarten; the result has not proven good for children, families, or education. A study by Trends in International Mathematics and Science shows that “disorder in Swedish classrooms is among the worst among comparable countries.” Evidence indicates that “[Swedish] children are simply not sufficiently emotionally nourished to be teachable in school.”
In response to campaigns to get children out of the family home at younger and younger ages, society in general, and parents in particular, should take Jonas Himmelstrand’s advice to heart:
Child care must be a parental decision based on the needs of the child, not a state decision based on politics and the economy. The state needs to remain neutral to all forms of care — daycare, home care, nanny, granny care, and neighbor care — and not support one form of care above another.