Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Joy Pullmann, a widely-published education analyst and the mother of four children, said the primary focus in development of education policy – including and perhaps especially pre-school programs – should be on children, not on systems.
This leads her, she explained to an audience in Oklahoma City, to a particualr question and thought process. It is a phrase generally assigned to first place rhetorically, but relegated to much lower importance, in practice.
That is: “Is this best for the children. Is it just?”
Early this month, Pullmann spoke via “Skype” to members of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition, which meets regularly at the Advance Center for Free Enterprise near the state Capitol. Like a careful potter in clay, she fashioned in language -- a few sentences, images and thoughts at a time -- her case for parental empowerment in selecting child rearing and early education goals and systems.
Concerning increased availability of government pre-school programs, she said the first question -- framed within the assumption of “kids first” – must be: “Should this be a government function?” A related point for discussion: “Is this something government is well-suited to do?”
And, she asked: “Can government do this better than others in our society? Can we afford it?”
For that question, she asserted, “Another way to put it is: ‘Is this something we should be buying debt from China in order to do?’”
Describing herself as “libertarian” in economics, she believes such queries are essential because, “The U.S. is a rich question, but it is also nearly broke. … In essence, it is socialism not to ask these questions.”
In an energetic presentation laced with stories from daily life with her four children and leavened with references to social science literature, she pointed to some 40 federal programs touching early childhood education, including Head Start.
Pullmann reflected on the “Gold Standard” for childhood development: “Nothing works as well for children as living with their two biological parents who are married to each other. This is … undisputed by social scientists on all sides of the political spectrum.”
When it comes to public policy, “Frankly, we should not do anything that hurts children.”
Government pre-school programs are either a welfare program or an entitlement, in her view and she presented “universal pre-school” as both. If that is the case, she wonders, “Why provide it for everyone?”
Pullmann said structured group child care reduces time for “active play,” which thrives in a setting where a biological parent provides the individualized attention for a child. “Active play” is essential in the first three to five years of life. Active play, for her, lies at the center of the ancient “Nature vs. Nurture” debate over factors in the growth and health of children.
“The more you study this the quicker you learn that singing, holding, picking things up, digging in the dirt are important to a child’s future cognitive development.” Simply put, kids need to touch, pinch, dig, get into cabinets, poke at things, she said. “Another way to put this is that playing with Play-Doh is important for a child’s development, both pre-literacy and literacy.”
Pullman observed that Americans often praise Scandinavian nations, “and in fact they do some wonderful things. One thing they do is that they have no formal schooling until ages six or seven.”
Pressure to create and expand government pre-school and early childhood systems, she said, is driven by many factors. She stressed, “The demand for pre-school is the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. The breakdown of the family unit is feeding the issue, the demand. Pre-school winds up replacing a broken family. The real issue is why are we having the breakdown?
“I mentioned earlier the gold-standard. We have more children than ever before in American history not living in the gold standard. … No government program can replace the hole in a child’s heart that comes from these living circumstances.”
These views might yield conclusions that Pullman is a predictable conservative with a libertarian bent. However, she often challenges strong economic interests which support government-run or regulated child care, rather than systems of choice.
Pullman says she is “against big business holding on to their market share through cronyism.” Women too often must work on the terms of the business, rather than on their own terms. Mothers live in a modern economy, yet “we still have this factory-style” of arranging the economics of child care.
She said, “My husband and I have stayed out of institution child care by choice. Women should not be deprived of the ability to negotiate what is best for them. The economic status quo of the current [child care] system is disabling and ‘dis-powering’ for women.”
Granting “we do not live in a libertarian paradise,” Pullman concluded with practical political observations about how reformers, especially supporters of choice in education and child-rearing, can improve on the status quo:
“Start where you are. The situation is different in each state. The economy is heavily regulated. Work through that, introduce Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), and make sure they include pre-school. Give families choices rather than mandates and enforcement of cookie-cutter approaches.”
In contending over the status quo which favors government-run child care, Pullmann said, “Actually look at the costs of government pre-school. Make that clear. Voters are not not stupid, but they do need context. Send these programs back to the states. The further you take things up to Washington, D.C., the further you take things away from the kids. Let kids be kids.”
In addition to her work as education fellow at Heartland Institute, a national ‘think tank’ based in Illinois, and as editor of ‘The Federalist’ online magazine, Pullmann is the author of a book scheduled for release in January 2017: ‘The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids,’ Encounter Books, 280 pages.