Betsy DeVos and Tom Price should make a huge difference for children
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As Betsy DeVos and Tom Price prepare to enter the new administration both would do well to give special consideration to the education of children prior to kindergarten.

At first blush this seems like odd advice. Early education was barely mentioned in their confirmation hearings, and it was hardly a hot topic during the campaign. Besides that, some may wonder why the Secretary of Health and Human Services should give any thought to education at all.


Yet a few early, coordinated steps between their two departments could produce big--dare I say huge — wins for America’s young children and for the new administration.

The right moves now could generate much-needed bipartisan goodwill while expanding the kinds of private sector solutions to public problems they both champion.

At less than four percent of total spending, the $20 billion voucher proposal floated for K-12 education is too little to have much impact, even if it survived the fierce opposition it will arouse.

However, it could make a real difference for children under five in whom the nation invests far fewer public dollars, and many early childhood educators would warmly welcome a $12,000 per child voucher initiative.

Education in the first five years of life is America’s education frontier. Resources are scarce, risks and opportunities high, and rugged individualists are creating innovative approaches that markedly differ from business as usual in K-12. 

Most education for children under five are provided by the private sector, and public-private partnerships are ubiquitous. Early education is much more open to new market-oriented approaches enlisting the private sector to increase productivity.

This openness to new public-private approaches focusing on results is as much a characteristic of of New York City’s Pre-K For All as it is for universal preschool in Price’s home state of Georgia.  

Early childhood education offers a superb test bed for market-oriented, public-private service systems emphasizing choice and competition. Not only is early education more open to market-oriented approaches, but also its greater experience with such approaches and stronger public-private partnerships increase the probability of their successful implementation.

The Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning is well placed to stimulate even more innovation in the first five years and to require rigorous evaluation so that we can systematically learn from these efforts. The Office of Early Learning could then provide a pathway for what is learned in preschool education to inform policy for kindergarten and the early grades.

Yet early education should mean much more than schooling. Early education must meet the needs of the whole child--cognitive, social, emotional, and physical — and meet parents’ needs for affordable child care. And most federal funding for early education programs is actually administered by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  

DHHS is responsible for both Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund which together account for most federal early education funding. DHHS and Education jointly administer the much more modest Preschool Development Grants program. For many educators serving children under age 5, DHHS is the more important federal partner. Yet, few have the luxury of being regulated by just one agency or even just DHSS agencies. Many face a daunting array of regulations from multiple agencies that too often distract them from a focus on meeting the day-to-day needs of the children and families they serve.

In Congress, Tom Price strongly advocated policies to deregulate and empower consumers and demonstrated willingness to experiment with new approaches to Head Start. His proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act called for tax credits to pay for individual insurance and further tax breaks to encourage people to use health savings accounts.  His emphasis on individual choice and competition aligns well DeVos’ approach to education reform, and will be much less contentious applied to early education where childcare vouchers, tax credits, and other approaches to choice that also address accountability concerns are already used.

Together they could forge a strong partnership between their departments to use vouchers and other approaches to harness private sector ingenuity, choice, and competition to improve learning opportunities for America’s youngest children. Such an approach could build on the best of what already exists, incorporating relatively few standards that are adequately funded with high expectations for learning and teaching. For example, New Jersey’s high quality model in 31 high poverty school districts allows parents to choose from school district-approved private providers who meet performance standards and receive more than $13,000 per school year for each child they serve. A continuous improvement process with school district oversight and parent choice ensures quality teaching, and test score gains have been substantial for the largely disadvantaged population served.

Boldly introducing large-scale market-oriented reforms through new investments in the education of young children is one of the best investments the new administration could make in America’s future.  If these reforms yield effective programs at scale, the rates of return will be on the order of 10 times cost. And coupling this with rigorous evaluation would generate important lessons that could be exported to the K-12 sector for even more gains. If DeVos and Price truly believe in private-public partnership, innovation, and choice as vehicles for improving education, this would be a great first step.

Steven Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. His research includes studies of the economics of early care and education including costs and benefits, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development, and the distribution of educational opportunities. Dr. Barnett earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Michigan. He has authored or co-authored over 180 publications, most recently State(s) of Head Start, a groundbreaking study of Head Start programs.  

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.