It’s been 20 years since then-First Lady Hillary Clinton published her best-selling book on child development, It Takes A Village. In the April 1996 reason, cognitive scientist Gwen J. Broude noted the contradictions between Clinton’s vision of child rearing and the tightly knit communities her book’s title referenced. “The kinds of villages to which the proverb refers are small, homogeneous, and kin-based,” she wrote. “They are little platoons. People know each other, interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, and form voluntary associations in which I watch your child and you watch mine. By contrast…the village that Hillary Clinton has in mind is Uncle Sam.”
In 2016, Clinton’s policy vision still moves the responsibility for child welfare from organic networks to government programs. But now she speaks as the Democrats’ presidential nominee. In June 2015, she called for universal preschool access. In May 2016, she proposed capping daycare provider expenses at 10 percent of a family’s income. She has also advocated doubling our investment in the government-run school-readiness program Head Start. In her book as well as on her 2016 campaign website, Clinton touts her “evidence-based” approach, implying that those who would rather not have government helping rear children from cradle to grave aren’t only wrong, but anti-science.
But the data contradict the former secretary of state’s claims. Since Clinton published her book, Head Start’s budget has more than doubled. In the next decade, the Brookings Institution estimates we’ll spend over $100 billion on the program. Yet the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation reported in 2012 that children who attended preschool through the program did no better academically than similar children who did not. Most surveys of state-run pre-K programs indicate that any gains in student achievement wear off over time, and the most rigorous study of universal pre-K showed that participation actually harmed student achievement after a few years.
A better solution would be to mirror the bottom-up approach school choice advocates call for in K–12 education: giving needy families extra resources to spend as they see fit. A recent Brookings study found that direct income transfers to poor families, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, do more to boost student achievement per dollar than Head Start. Instead of transforming the government into a national surrogate parent, Clinton should let the wisdom of the village prevail.