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  • John Garen, PhD

Beware of Politicians Bearing Gifts

By John Garen, PhD


“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” is a saying stemming from the legend of the Trojan War, where the Greek army left the Trojans a “gift” of a giant wooden horse, with Greek soldiers hidden inside. When the Trojans brought the horse inside the gates of Troy, the Greek soldiers slipped out of the horse, opened the city gates to let in the Greek army, and Troy was conquered.


Of course, modern usage of the saying has nothing to do with Greeks but is an admonition to beware of a gift from an untrustworthy source. And this admonition applies in full force to politicians who promise “free” stuff. A recent example of this is government funded, universal pre-K. Indeed, this is part of the Biden administration’s budget proposal. While early childhood experiences are important for children, there are many reasons to beware of the “gift” of government pre-K.


One is that, though it may be provided at no charge, it isn’t free. We bear the cost through higher taxes. Moreover, government organizations determine the specifics of the pre-K programs. Taxpayers must pay for and users must take whatever government provides . . . whether they like it or not.


Some contend, though, that “high-quality” pre-K is worth it. However, government-run programs simply have not delivered. Fundamentally, how can we trust a governmental education system with pre-K that has failed us in many ways with K-12?


Neil McCluskey of the Cato Institute puts it this way:


“Which brings me to perhaps the primary reason preschool programs don’t seem to deliver the goods: Government can’t make providers furnish “high quality.” Unlike the accountability that comes when customers use their own money to pay for a service, government provision often ends up working for service providers, not supposed beneficiaries. It is the providers who get the most direct benefit — a livelihood — from pre‐​K programs, so they are the most involved in pre‐​K politics. . . . This has been a serious problem in Head Start, which for years suffered poor oversight of centers that kept their grants come hell or high water. . . it seems a triumph of hope over experience to think that districts that have shown no ability to help kids at the K-12 level will succeed with even younger children.”


Amen. And beware.


John Garen, PhD., is BB&T Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky. He is a policy advisor for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities.