Pre-K must come with school choice

Pre-school is hot – again. It has been so, off and on, since ancient Greece. Plato’s ideal state would have imposed full-time boarding school starting at day one for all newborns, keeping them permanent strangers to their parents – those natural enemies of his perfect Republic.

Does NYC Mayor de Blasio's vision of pre-K include parental school choice?
Does NYC Mayor de Blasio’s vision of pre-K include parental school choice?

The spirit of Plato has played a larger role in American public schooling than often we recognize. Still, contra Plato, our imperfect Republic still allows parents to keep their children home until age five or six, then lets those who can afford it to choose among all schools, public and private. But for the less fortunate family, it is difficult or impossible to avoid their child’s conscription for seven hours, five days a week. To that extent, Plato wins, they lose.

Many now propose extending public schooling to younger children. Would this new deal in education be undertaken in the platonic spirit? For whom, and at what age? Would lower-income families be subsidized in order to make their own choices among public, private, and religious providers? Or would pre-K school be designed as the government strong-arm long familiar to post-K families, especially those forced into public schools in the cities? Exactly what is the intention of government enthusiasts, such as the new mayor of New York City?

We just don’t know; if Mr. de Blasio wants to replicate for infants the income-based conscription of K-12, he has not yet told us. And one full-length recent article and three New York Times’ editorials on pre-K in one week never touch the issue. Does government aim to frustrate even further the exercise of responsibility by the low-income family; or to the contrary, will Mr. de Blasio respect, for these few early years, the authority of such families to exercise in practice the role that their middle-class fellow citizens take for granted?

The teachers’ union brass know what they want – a gradual incorporation of the child’s early years into the present K-12 system, which has, since the 1960s, so well served the interest of their leaders (if less so their blighted membership.) The education schools will be their allies, eager for the state to invent new categories of academic degrees required by law for teachers to qualify in order to instruct the very young about the right stuff.

Pre-K could be designed to nourish the child while restoring the spirit and authority of the family. I suppose that at some age (four?) it might even become compulsory – a “right of the child” – with the usual exception for home schooling. My own instinct is against this.

What is plain – whether compulsory or at parental discretion – is that pre-K could be an opportunity to serve both child and family, but only on one condition: the choice of the provider (and the option for authentic home schooling) must be guaranteed to the parent. The state may set reasonable requirements, but the basic content of the experience must be left to mothers and fathers. And this can be accomplished only by government subsidy sufficient – and properly designed – to give ordinary and struggling families equal status in the open market.