02/20/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Shall We Drug Test Our Pre-schoolers?

At first glance one might miss the similarity between President Obama's proposal for universal pre-school and the New Hampshire GOP's proposal for drug testing welfare recipients.

The New Hampshire initiative, while probably unconstitutional on its face, would require welfare recipients to undergo semi-annual drug tests in order to continue eligibility. Those darned poor people - taking drugs, eating junk food and generally living large on the public dole! This characterization is an untrue as it is offensive. The GOP's punitive, stereotyping view of poverty is enough to make rational people everywhere want to alter their moods or sedate themselves with comfort food!

But I digress. My concerns about Obama's proposal arise from an oddly parallel concern: That our policy-makers feel compelled to design strict accountability only into programs which deal with "the other" in our society.

Please don't infer that I don't support a national commitment to the well being of children (and all others). I am an unabashed political progressive. We need more progressive taxation, more regulation of big corporations, and more commitment to social justice through our local, state and federal legislatures. We especially need a greater national commitment to education. But we shouldn't bind our commitment to education with federal policy that undermines good education. And that's what we appear to be poised to do . . . again.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been an unmitigated disaster. The evidence is unambiguous. Most children have been left behind. (Although the educational publishing companies have sprinted briskly ahead.) Even on the mindless metrics that claim to measure achievement, the policy has been a disaster. These policies have not enhanced anything other than the incidence of cheating by students, teachers and administrators. Nearly all reported claims of educational "gains" are the result of gaming the system, changing the scoring matrix or outright fraud. On a deeper level - the extent to which education enlivens the spirit, stimulates curiosity, enhances imagination, and develops critical capacities - the last decade has been catastrophic.

Race to the Top is worse. (If such a thing is possible) It kicks the measurement can down the road to states and local jurisdictions, while simultaneously rewarding the wholesale looting of public education by way of enabling charter operators and voucher programs that divert public funds to the private trough.

It is in this sad context that I worry about the latest Obama "fix" for education. The words on the Teleprompter had hardly faded before the calls from both sides of the aisle came loud and clear: "Yes, but we need to hold them accountable!" "Align the curriculum with the Common Core State Standards!" "As long as they're learning to read and write to compete with the _______________ (fill in the blank)."

The value of pre-school rests in its lack of highly structured intentions. 3 and 4 year old children have such widely varied developmental timelines, that a "curriculum" is nonsensical. The evidence for the importance of play is unambiguous, but the play should be imaginative and open-ended, not teacher-directed and "pre-academic."

The bitter irony is that the children who least need pre-school in America are the ones for whom it is readily available. Privileged children have the luxury of play-based, developmentally flexible pre-schools like the one at my school. I'm not suggesting that it has no value, but most of our pre-school students would do just fine without. Many, not all, of our pre-school parents also have time to arrange play dates, play groups, or other social activities. These families also have homes rich in print and oral language and engaging toys for their toddlers to freely explore. For these folks, pre-school is a lovely extension of a set of advantages that accompany privilege. It is also a way for kids to have these experiences while parents pursue satisfying work.

But in less-privileged communities, families don't have these advantages. For them, the need for pre-school is inarguably greater. Without pre-school, these children are too likely to remain in environments where oral and print language is less abundant, where resources don't allow for creative toys and parents are too overwhelmed making ends meet. It's hard to object to a proposal for universal pre-school, as the intent is laudatory. But as is the case with highly regimented charter schools and "accountable" public schools, the design is for "the other," not for the children of the programs' architects.

And the last thing we need is for the geniuses that brought us NCLB and RTTT to design a pre-school program. I can only imagine that Pearson is already designing materials for the new pre-school market and other entrepreneurs are drooling over the possibility of online pre-school. Play groups on Skype!! Imagine the scalability!

Back to my original, attention-getting analogy. . .

When we grant subsidies to large corporations, or bail out the financial leaders who led our economy to the brink, we don't ask the recipients of social largess to take semi-annual drug tests. We only mistrust the poor folks who are the victims of an increasingly inequitable society.

When we look at all the wonderful opportunities available to young children of privilege, we don't insist on accountability or alignment with some wrong-headed standards. But we always insist that the least advantaged among us provide proof that our precious dollars are being spent with measurable efficacy.

Can we not be unconditionally generous and understanding?