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July 18, 2002

Woodruff Letter to Councilman Chavous on Mandatory Pre-school

July 17, 2002

Councilmember Kevin Chavous
Council of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Ste. 402
Washington, D.C. 20004

Re: Bill 14-261

Dear Councilmember Chavous:

Bill 14-261 would lower the age of compulsory attendance in the District of Columbia to three years of age. No society in history, to my knowledge, has ever done this. It is an irresponsible experiment with our children as the test subjects. Ultimately, the question is not whether institutional education of two- and three-year-olds might be a good idea. A few studies suggest that, although their reliability is doubtful. The question really is whether early education is so clearly and overwhelmingly a good idea as to warrant forcing it on unwilling children and parents. The answer is clearly no. The courts will agree.

Before jumping into an unprecedented experiment with the lives of young children, we need to take a cold, hard, sober look at the facts. I will document below that there is much to be lost and little to be gained with this risky plan.

  1. Edward Zigler, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, is known as the father of Head Start. He has advised every administration since Lyndon B. Johnson on early childhood education. He administered the Head Start program when it was first created. He has received national acclaim and recognition for his expertise in early childhood education.

    He wrote a letter concerning this bill on June 4, 2002. The entire letter is attached at Tab 1. Here are some excerpts.

    I have some comments on Bill 14-261 . . . . Our knowledge of children's development tells me that, as drafted, your bill will fail even if it passes. One reason is that there is great individual variation in the course of early development. Most two-year-olds, and indeed, many threes, simply are not ready for formal schooling. In the normal course of development, the physical, cognitive, and emotional skills necessary for school emerge at various rates and times in each child. The child who has not yet achieved one developmental activity or another will be disadvantaged by premature school entry. Children whose first exposure to school brings negative experiences may be doomed to a negative - and lasting - attitude toward education. It is best to make school for such young children a voluntary matter to be chosen when parents and educators agree that it is in a child's best interests.

    Another fact that speaks strongly for voluntary preschool is the importance of parental cooperation and participation. The literature is very clear that effective preschool programs feature a strong partnership with parents. Forcing them to put their very young children into classrooms is not the way to start a partnership. This is particularly true among parents who have low educational achievement and bad memories of their own school years. If they're invited rather than forced rather into their child's schooling, they are more likely to become invested in their child's learning in preschool and later grades. . . .

  2. Dr. Zigler has been honored numerous times for his contributions to early education. His qualifications are impeccable. See Tab 2. His opinion must be considered very seriously.

  3. The General Accounting Office (GAO), the government agency charged with determining whether programs work and our tax dollars are well spent, has determined that current research does not demonstrate that the Head Start program has a significant impact on children. After reviewing about 600 separate studies on Head Start, the GAO stated:

    Little is known, however, about whether the program has achieved its goals. Although an extensive body of literature exists on Head Start, only a small part of that involves program impact research. Because of these researched studies' individual and collective limitations, this body of research is insufficient for use in drawing conclusions about the impact of the national program.

    This is a highly impressive statement since the GAO reviewed 600 studies before coming to this conclusion. The GAO had no particular axe to grind and no vested interest. Their job was simply to determine whether there is evidence that Head Start works. Their conclusion is that it is simply impossible to tell.

    The doubtfulness of the benefit of the Head Start program powerfully underlines the obvious: programs for children under five should remain optional. Parents alone should decide whether they believe their child would benefit from the program. This decision cannot be made by a governmental body and imposed on the citizens.

    A copy of GAO Report T-HEHS-98-126 is attached at Tab 3.

  4. There are a few studies that seem to indicate that early education is beneficial. The studies are deeply flawed and should not be relied upon. See attached paper, Universal Preschool is No Golden Ticket, February 9, 1999, at Tab 4.

  5. Forced early education can seriously damage a child's personality. Dr. David Elkind, a psychologist at Tufts University said:

    There is really no evidence that early, formal institutionalization brings any lasting or permanent benefits for children. By contrast, the risk to the child's motivation, intellectual growth, and self-esteem could well do serious damage to the child's emerging personality. It is reasonable to conclude that the early instruction of young children derives more from the need and priorities of adults than from what we know of good pedagogy for young children.

    Furthermore, a careful comparison of children's academic performance shows that they do no better academically in states or countries that have low compulsory attendance ages. See Tab 5.

  6. The D.C. public schools are plagued with violence, as are many urban school systems. The front page of the Washington Times a few months ago displayed an assortment of weapons collected from students in D.C. public schools after an attempt to remove weapons from students.

    When parents do not spend sufficient time with their children, this can become a root cause of violence. I am attaching a report, The Root Causes of Juvenile Violence, by John C. Thomas, M.A. On page 18 of that study, Thomas states:

    Secular society's vacuum of transcendent themes and meaningful existence is being filled by a brutally violent ethic. This toxic combination, coupled with parental absence, has created what many young people have decided is an "intolerable world." Unable to cope with the pressures that such a world presents on a young soul, some have acted out with shocking, violent behavior. These are the root causes of juvenile violence.

    See Tab 6. If Bill 14-261 passes, it will force some parents to spend less time with their children. When these young children who are starved for parental attention enter their adolescent or preadolescent years, they will tend to increase the statistics of violence in D.C. public schools.

  7. Bill 14-261 is unconstitutional and is highly likely to engender litigation. No jurisdiction in our country has ever forced children so young to attend school. Judges have not yet, therefore, had an opportunity to rule on whether or not it would be constitutional. There is no doubt whatsoever, however, that forcing children of such tender years into an institutional system would be held to violate fundamental parental rights. See Tab 7 for a detailed explanation.

  8. It will be impossible to guarantee the quality of education. Despite best intentions, a school system is too large, too chaotic, and too impersonal to assure each child is well cared for - and it is the young ones who have the least ability to speak up and defend themselves. In one state, a Head Start teacher used cockroaches to punish a little boy who would not take a nap. See Tab 8. The Council cannot guarantee that similar shocking mistreatment would not occur in a forced early education program in the District.

  9. The commission which Councilmember Chavous established to look at this bill recommended that attendance for these young children not be mandatory. He has disregarded the wise recommendation of his own commission and continues to insist that these young children be forced into school.

There is little to be gained and much to be lost by conducting an irresponsible experiment with our children. A few studies, but not enough to reach a definite conclusion, have suggested some benefits when early education is strictly voluntary. As Dr. Zigler noted in his letter, however, when education moves from voluntary to compulsory, there is a tremendous potential to lose the intended benefit and, in fact, to cause long-term harm. Our children should not be guinea pigs in an experiment.

This bill would be an historical freak. In the rigidly militaristic society of ancient Sparta in Greece, children were not compelled to go to school until they were seven years old. In Germany, where compulsory education got its start, children are not required to attend school until they are six. In communist China, one of the largest and most oppressive regimes today, children are not forced to attend school until they are six or seven. If this bill passes, D.C. would surpass the most notorious societies of ancient times and modern in its degree of state control over young children. D.C. already has the lowest compulsory attendance age in the entire country.

I urge you to halt this experimental, reckless, and unscientific proposal.

Sincerely yours,

Scott A. Woodruff, Esq.