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Education Reporter

'Kidstuff' Brings the Nanny State to Alabama
The Kidstuff logo resembles the Chinese number six, with the "kid" figure reaching for a red star.
MONTGOMERY, AL - The national push to install a "cradle to grave" monitoring and tracking system for every American child has come to Alabama under the guise of an early childhood education program called Kidstuff. Alabama Governor Don Siegelman launched the program last January with Executive Order No. 42, which created the Governor's Commission on Early Learning. At the end of July, Siegelman unveiled the commission's 80-page report detailing a "45-step strategy designed to improve early learning for all of Alabama's children." The Governor has appointed the state's first "children's commissioner," and Kidstuff early learning centers are being expanded from eight sites to 43.

When fully implemented, the Kidstuff strategies advocated in the commission's report are projected to cost in excess of $300 million. This staggering sum is justified, proponents say, because "quality early-learning programs" improve school performance, increase the likelihood of high school graduation, enhance job opportunities, and reduce crime, particularly among low-income children, thus saving the state millions in welfare and other societal costs. Advocates claim that 2/3 of Alabama's children are in some form of child care environment anyway, and that Kidstuff will ultimately "save $7 for every one dollar spent."

Many researchers, pro-family groups, parents and citizens, however, are concerned that these savings projections are inflated, and that the program's costs will ultimately become a cumbersome burden for taxpayers. They also fear that the real purpose of Kidstuff is to increase state intrusion into family life.

The Perry Project 
Critics charge that the Early Learning Commission report is based on the unproven assumption that all children benefit from programs such as Kidstuff, and that early intervention makes a critical difference in many children's lives. An experiment known as the Perry Preschool Project is frequently cited in the report as proof of this assumption, and Perry's favorable results are popular with many proponents of universal preschool. But the Alabama Policy Institute points out in its recently-released analysis of early learning programs, From Cradle to Kindergarten, that the 27-year Perry Project "was a specialized program directed at a very particular and unrepresentative group of 58 borderline-educable, mentally retarded minority children."

"Even if Perry did produce enormous results for this very small and very disadvantaged group of children," notes the analysis, "it is inaccurate to suggest that a random early intervention program directed at any segment of the population would produce the same results."

Nevertheless, advocates of preschool programs including Kidstuff persist in claiming that programs not directed at disadvantaged children will produce the same savings to society as the Perry Project.

An Expert Speaks 
In an August interview on Alabama's public television program, For the Record, Professor Alfred Baumeister, Ph.D., former director of the Kennedy Center for Research and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, refuted some of the Early Learning Commission report's claims. Baumeister stated that the over-arching problem with the report is that it is "based on a shaky scientific foundation." He argued that it "misappropriates, misinterprets and selectively uses" science.

Responding to proponents' insistence that placing children in "quality" child-care centers is essential to their later academic and social success, Baumeister stated: "The ordinary range of environments American children encounter are sufficient for them to develop normally. The idea that parents must do this or that during a critical period, from ages one to three, for example, is a fallacious argument."

"Even under what we might consider deprived conditions," he continued, "excluding severe deprivations, children develop quite adequately."

Of particular concern to Baumeister and others is the commission's statement that "The old 'nature vs. nurture' debate is over," which assumes as fact that "it is the child's surroundings - particularly the child's relationship with significant others - that make a child's potential possible." Baumeister maintains that this assumption "is wrong," and that an enormous amount of a child's capacity to develop is genetic.

According to Baumeister, vast amounts of research show that pre-kindergarten programs make no difference in a child's development, and that they may even have harmful effects. "The money that will be spent on Kidstuff," he advised, "would be much better spent on K-12 education programs."

Commission Report Excerpts 
The Early Learning report bemoans the fact that "Alabama has no comprehensive system for the identification of families and children in need of special services," and that "no comprehensive database exists concerning number, location, and pertinent information [on] children, childcare facilities, and services for children and families." The following are excerpts of some of the remedies the Early Learning commission recommends:

  • Expand and utilize a database of services and providers both at the state and local levels.

  • Develop a universal form for the evaluation of needs and delivery of services for every child born in Alabama.

  • Utilize a database of all children to evaluate, communicate, and assess the needs of children and families. . . .

  • Consolidate services for families and children into one comprehensive system to provide better services with fewer instances of duplication.

  • Develop a secure and confidential information network that combines data from many state agencies and care providers concerning children from birth to age five. To achieve that goal: 1) Electronically enroll each newborn in all Alabama hospitals in an information network at the time the birth certificate is filled out. 2) Mail reminders to parents/grandparents to arrange regular child health checkups and screenings.

The 'Smart Start' Model 
Kidstuff is modeled after the Smart Start program in North Carolina, which was instituted by former Governor Jim Hunt in 1993. Smart Start was touted as a "public-private partnership" providing quality child care, health care, and other family support services. Smart Start has received favorable reviews in the media, but has it made a real difference?

According to North Carolina's John Locke Foundation, four studies on Smart Start released between early 1998 and the fall of 1999 show that the program has "little benefit for most children once they reach school."

The Alabama Policy Institute's From Cradle to Kindergarten describes the "Six-County Study of the Effects of Smart Start Child Care on Kindergarten Entry Skills," conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The study compared children who attended a Smart Start center for at least eight months to children in other care settings, and found that "children who attended Smart Start child care centers had skills similar to children in the comparison group."

The authors of the study "found a difference only when they broke the Smart Start children into two groups: 1) Smart Start children who attended centers participating in activities directly related to improving child care quality; and 2) Smart Start children who attended centers that did not participate in activities directly related to improving child care quality." In other words, the children improved when intensive and extraordinary means were employed, but "the vast majority of Smart Start expenditures had no statistically significant effect on participants' readiness to learn in kindergarten."

The question many Alabama citizens are asking is, "Will the results of Kidstuff be any better"? Many predict that the answer will be "no."

"Kidstuff and other similar programs are the result of Goals 2000's Goal #1, that 'All children will start school ready to learn,' " notes Alabama Eagle Forum's Betty Peters. "Proponents of Kidstuff insist that 'quality,' is the critical word in child care, but many people believe that the truly critical word is 'control' - meaning government control over our families and our lives."

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