What might be the problem with preschool? Where can conscientious parents and educators find common ground? In this interview, Diane Flynn Keith shares her views with Jo Scott-Coe about California's "First Five" advertisements, Rob Reiner, standardized testing, John Taylor Gatto, Bill Gates, Oprah--and much more.
Diane Flynn Keith is founder of Universal Preschool.com and author of Carschooling: Over 350 Entertaining Games & Activities To Turn Travel Time Into Learning Time (Random House 2002).
Jo Scott-Coe: The name of your website, "Universal Preschool," must catch some people off guard once they start reading it. Talk about how your group began.
Diane Flynn Keith: In my home state of California, I kept hearing advertisements by "California First Five" that made ridiculous claims such as children who don’t go to preschool are more likely to wind up in prison.
California First Five is a tobacco tax funded front for the California School Board supported "Children & Families Act of 1998" that was spearheaded by actor-director Rob Reiner. First Five believes that parents are woefully inadequate and therefore need government preschools to prepare kids for entry into kindergarten and first grade. This is absolute poppycock.
I thought that I'd see parental rights organizations offer an opposing opinion but, to my amazement and consternation, it didn't happen. The ads were so recurrent and insidious that by August of 2004 I had heard enough! I decided that if no one was going to oppose the movement to institutionalize little kids in government preschool programs -- I would do it myself!
The fastest way to get a message out is via the Internet. I found the domain name, "UniversalPreschool.com" was available. I decided to launch a website, where people looking for information on "Universal Preschool" would be surprised to find information opposing it, along with resources to empower parents to teach their little ones at home and/or with the thoughtful use of privately funded preschool programs. I also wanted the website to be a place where activists could mobilize opposition to public preschools.
JSC: What's been your reaction to the latest First Five barrage of ads on TV and radio in California?
DFK: Outrage. I can't believe that tax money is used to disseminate such propaganda. I didn't know that public funds could be used to convince the population that little kids should be institutionalized without providing equal opportunity for rebuttal. Reiner's First Five Ads were cleverly timed to sway public sentiment and opinion to assure a "yes" vote on the Preschool-For-All Act. The 23 million tax dollars spent on this advertising campaign were funds that could have been used to help educate parents in ways that would make meaningful differences in the lives of children. What a waste of taxpayer's money. It's unconscionable.
JSC: What about conscientious, financially struggling parents who can't afford privately funded preschool options but who want some support?
DFK: State and federally funded programs (such as Kidango and Head Start) already exist for low-income families. They are under funded and have waiting lists. The PACE research study released in 2005 by U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University show that while at-risk, low income children receive slight benefits from preschool, children from middle class and high-income families develop negative social behavior, aggression, stress, lack of cooperation, poorer work habits, and were more difficult to discipline as a result of preschool attendance. Rather than subsidize preschool-for-all, we should adequately fund and expand existing programs to help the at-risk children for whom it will do some good.
There's a second part to this question. There are families who are struggling financially who don't qualify for government programs based on income. They find it difficult to afford private preschool. There is an assumption here that children NEED preschool. Want and need are two different things. Again, research shows that “disadvantaged” kids receive some benefit from preschool. Not all low-income children are disadvantaged. Many children have functional, attentive parents who provide what children need to prepare them for school readiness without ever setting foot in a preschool. However, for some parents preschool is synonymous with daycare. They WANT welfare for daycare in the form of public preschools. That is an entitlement mentality, and it cultivates dependency on the government nanny from womb to tomb. Rather than developing preschool welfare programs for everyone, we should take a look at raising the financial intelligence of the population. Invest in education programs that teach people how to manage their money, avoid consumerism, and make their money work for them so that they can afford privatized preschools if they want them. Even as I say this, I understand that it doesn't relieve the financial stress for some families in the here-and-now. Perhaps we should consider the feasibility of low-interest preschool loans.
JSC: Now we have Rob Reiner's abrupt withdrawals--“leave of absence” and now outright resignation!--from the First Five Commission. It appears that there's an audit imminent. Any predictions?
DFK: I won't bite my lip in anticipation of a scandal. I can tell you, however, that last Fall, at a Preschool Advocacy Day in Sacramento that was sponsored by the non-profit Packard Foundation, I witnessed a presumptuous and cocky Reiner urge the audience to turn out the yes vote on Preschool-For-All in June 2006. Reiner acknowledged that he wasn't supposed to say that (due to IRS regulations restricting non-profits from political and lobbying activities) but told the audience he didn't care and invited the Feds to come and get him.
If the auditor's saber-rattling serves no other purpose than to wipe that arrogant smirk off Reiner's face, stop the First Five ads, and cast doubt about Prop 82 in the minds of voters that's a good thing, in my opinion. Whether or not an audit proves conclusively that First Five mishandled public funds to influence votes, the damage has been done. I hope voters won't entrust vulnerable 4-year-olds to legislation that has been sold like snake-oil to them by people seemingly without ethics or political principles.
JSC: What's your definition of a good education?
DFK: I think it's different for every human being. I know that it's not about producing a product, hard as that may be to believe in a society that is product oriented. A good education is not linear. A good education is chaotic and messy. It's trial and error. It's the scientific method at work. A good education is human life expressing itself unencumbered by false agendas. The journey is what a good education is all about -- magnificent quantities of time to wonder, engage, and reflect in order to figure out who you are, what you're good at, what you want to contribute, and how to be happy. A good education provides the student with a sense of utter fulfillment and infinite joy in becoming the author and editor of his or her own life.
JSC: How does a child learn to be a good person as well as a good student?
DFK: Every person has their own view on this. I can only speak for my own family. My husband and I raised our children with an assumption of goodness. We reinforced it with three rules as guidelines. Two are from English common law and the third is the Golden Rule. They are:
1) Don't encroach on other people or their property.
2) Keep your agreements
3) Treat other people the way you would like them to treat you.
We posted these rules -- our family's Civil Code of Conduct -- in plain site in our house. Whenever the children had friends over -- we showed them the rules, so they knew what behavior was expected and accepted. Whenever there was a situation where we needed guidance, we referred to it. It worked for us.
JSC: How do you think policymakers view a "good student" and "good person" in the current climate -- and what do you see as tangible effects for kids, both at home and at school?
DFK: I think policymakers view a good student and a good person in exactly the same way -- as human capital. They think of them as human resources and consumers who need to be managed and controlled so that they are predictable, and can be quantified and calculated for profit down to the last penny. The way the masses are indoctrinated and controlled is through government schools. Kids who are in the public school system don't have a prayer of escaping without some kind of intellectual, social, emotional, psychological or physical damage. That damage extends to the society at large.
JSC: What interests you specifically in John Taylor Gatto's writing about American compulsory school?
DFK: Gatto taught in public and private schools for 30 years and upon receiving the New York State Teacher of the Year Award in 1990 he used the opportunity to quit -- accusing the government school system of being psychopathic. From that time, he's been a champion for change and has worked to reveal the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. He spent 10 years researching public schooling that culminated in the release of his book, The Underground History of American Education, that details the social engineering behind public schools deliberately designed to not only dumb down the population but rob us of our autonomy and liberty.
JSC: Lots of people are excited about the Reiner Initiative's sound bytes, which
promise half-day preschool programs, five days a week, for all 4-year-olds. On the surface, it seems like such an easy sell. "Tutoring" plus daycare support. Why is UP opposed?
DFK: UniversalPreschool lists many reasons why we are opposed to Reiner's
Preschool-For-All Act or Proposition 82. Here are five of the most important:
1) Preschool-For-All will jeopardize funding for California K-12 public schools that already have academic scores among the worst in the country.
2) A state-run preschool monopoly will put private preschools out of business. Replacing thriving businesses that are mainly owned and operated by women and minorities will eliminate jobs and tax revenue and reduce educational and childcare options for all families -- especially for the poor and middle class.
3) California spends $3 billion each year to provide preschool for families in need -- and this initiative extends that subsidy to the middle class and rich who don't need it.
4) Preschool-For-All has unproven benefits and may actually harm children. Proponents make inflated claims about preschool based on a handful of studies that were conducted on severely disadvantaged poor children. Those findings don't apply to children from normal homes. In fact, the PACE study by U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University shows that children from middle class and high-income families suffer negative consequences from preschool attendance.
5) Preschool-For-All is not in the best interests of ALL children. Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for preschool programs that can hurt the state's economy, destroy small businesses, and harm little kids.
JSC: There's a rising tide of teachers in the public system concerned about
test mania and standardization in schools, which has frankly stood
unchallenged by the unions which supposedly represent them. What kind of
connections might you envision between dismayed parents and teachers to
create alternatives to the status quo?
DFK: Funding for schools is tied to accountability through standardized testing. Until and unless we don't require that kind of accountability nothing will change. Most people think that standardized testing is a legitimate measure of what a student knows, and that's a myth that needs to be exposed too.
In my opinion, the only way that teachers and parents can change the status quo within the public school system is through outright rebellion. Refuse to administer tests. Refuse to teach to the test. Refuse to allow children to take tests. In California, Education Code 60615 allows parents to waive testing of their child just by requesting it in a letter to the principal of the school. More parents should do that.
JSC: Certainly, but why aren't more Californians mobilized in this direction? In Colorado this past month, citizens addressed lawmakers on the floor of the state legislature, challenging the notion of testing for merit. Our own California "opt out" advocates are rather quiet these days.
DFK: Perhaps it's cynicism or apathy. But it could also be that misguided Californians (largely uninformed about the monolithic school system) don't want to negatively impact school funding. Most believe that money is the answer to the problem. Of course, if money were the answer, we would have solved the problem a long time ago.
The public school system is not just sick, it's terminal. We keep it on life support by pumping more money into it. We need to pull the plug and let it die. Of course, that would result in an economic disaster when you consider all of the corporations and special interests who benefit financially from public schooling. That government-school-industrial complex will not sit idly by and allow change without a fight. The truth is that most parents only care about school while their kids are enrolled in it. Their opposition to business-as-usual is transient. The system is set up so that change is completely and utterly avoidable.
JSC: What do proponents of younger and younger preschool attendance NOT
understand about the parental choice to delay enrollment in school?
DFK: I think they understand very well the meaning of parental choice to delay or refuse preschool enrollment. Parents currently have authority over the lives of their young children. That's a threat to social engineering. I think that's exactly why we are seeing this push-to-preschool on a national level. Once voluntary public preschool programs are seeded, and people become accustomed to them, we will see legislation introduced to make preschool mandatory. (It has already happened with Kindergarten in many states, and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is leading a task force to provide public preschools and to make Kindergarten mandatory nationwide.) The younger the student is, the easier it is to program them with state doctrine. Historically, political dictatorships have done it with great success.
JSC: How would you describe your own educational journey?
DFK: I had a private, parochial school education from grades 1-12. I received an AA degree at community college. I attended a registered nursing program and a couple of state colleges but began resisting schooling in earnest -- I just couldn't take responding to an authority outside of myself any longer. So, I dropped out of college and spent many years in different jobs trying to figure out what I wanted to be and do. Working provided the best educational experience. I started my own business and that was the ultimate eye-opener -- that I could direct my own life, work, and education and enjoy it every step of the way.
JSC: Describe your philosophy of home-preschooling.
DFK: I hate the term "home-preschooling." It implies that preschool is a de facto necessity. It suggests that if you don't send your children to public or private preschool then you must create preschool at home. Nothing could be further from the truth. Encouraging learning is what's important. Children are naturally curious and with the loving guidance of functional, caring parents they develop all of the skills and attributes necessary to prepare them to tackle schooling or other learning scenarios when they are developmentally ready. Parents who spend copious amounts of time with their kids and who talk, read, sing, hug and kiss their kids, and who play with them and take the time to show them how to do things and how things work, and answer their questions with facts, clarity, and honesty, and who expose their kids to the bounty of life, not only instill learning readiness skills, but provide self-confidence and emotional stability as well. While institutions like preschools may provide some activities that get the synapses firing, they are woefully lacking in the variety of stimuli, attention, love, support, and encouragement received by a child raised in a loving home.
JSC: You probably saw footage of Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey on Entertainment TV on February 16 making a surprise school appearance down in San Diego. Gates' Foundation has already donated $11 million into a "smaller schools" program there, and Winfrey has herself made million-dollar contributions to schools. What's your reaction to the rush of corporate money, and "celebrity experts," to "help" the public system?
DFK: I didn't see footage, but I heard about it.
Gates heads a corporation that needs to train human resources and consumers. There is no better way to do that than through public schools. Donating $11 million is a small gesture to instill faith in public schooling that will result in billions of dollars in profit gained from training future work forces and consumers. That's all it is. It won't change the inequitable consequences of funding being tied to testing results. Testing results are tied to the socio-economic class of the student. The amount of money a kid's parents make is the best indicator of how well they will do on a test. Visit a public school classroom in Beverly Hills and then visit one in south central L.A. The disparity in educational opportunity will astound you. There is no such thing as the utopian ideal of equal opportunity in public education. All of Bill Gates' money won't change that if the system itself remains the same. I think he's counting on it.
As for Oprah, she thinks pouring more money into schools is the answer. Again, the government school system is the problem. I've said it's broken. Actually, it's not broken at all. It operates exactly as it was designed to do -- to dumb down the population so that it can be controlled and manipulated for profit. Public schools help to maintain the socio-economic status quo. It assures massive gaps in education among the poor and working classes and the elite. Giving government schools more money will only feed the machine, to the detriment of the very people Oprah hopes to help.