Category Archives: School Readiness

Child and Public Health in a Libertarian Legal Framework

Earlier this year the West Coast saw a measles outbreak, another recurrence in a string of previously eradicated childhood illnesses. Stories of parents’ various objections to vaccination quickly flooded the news, underscoring the main question: who is responsible for these public health crises, families or the state? While some people may have been surprised or confused to see such illnesses return, Clare Huntington and Elizabeth Scott’s explanation of children’s health in a legal framework for The Future of Children provides valuable context.

The U.S. legal system, say Huntington and Scott, “gives parents the authority and responsibility to make decisions about their children’s health care, and favors parental rights over society’s collective responsibility to provide for children’s welfare” or, in the case of vaccination, overall public health. They call this a libertarian legal framework as a way to describe the legal context in which parents are permitted to make their own decisions about child health. There are exceptions, such as when a child’s life is in danger or when a child is in juvenile justice custody; however, since parental rights are constitutionally protected, a high standard of harm must be met before intervention can occur.

In public health cases such as vaccination, where can the line of “harm” be drawn? Currently, all healthy children are required to receive vaccinations in order to attend school. However, almost all states offer exemptions for religious beliefs and many also offer them for other philosophical convictions. The balance between the libertarian argument and public health theoretically rests on the understanding that those with strong beliefs both deserve their right to decide and are a small enough segment of the population that the overall public interest of immunity is still met. However the return of some childhood illnesses shows that this balance is no longer being maintained.

Now many states are tightening their exemption policies. For example, California (origin of the measles outbreak) is on the verge of eliminating philosophical exemptions. For some states, making these adjustments may be more difficult. As Huntingdon and Scott put it, “without an affirmative legal obligation to promote children’s [or public] health, governmental investment is optional.” In this context, public health policy is often reactive rather than proactive or preventative.

Recent shifts in both cultural and legal views of vaccination deliver an immediate and crucial example of the libertarian legal context for child health policy and its limits. To read further on current issues in children’s health, see our latest issue of The Future of Children, Policies to Promote Child Health.”

To Reduce Delinquency, Prevention is Key

As a New York Times editorial noted recently, although the number of incarcerated juveniles is at a 35-year low, the US continues to lead developed nations in the number of young people it locks up. Incarceration has serious consequences for ex-offenders, including poorer health, lower earnings, and family breakup; thus many states have begun investing in more effective strategies to reduce delinquency. As Peter Greenwood explains in the Future of Children, “The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place.”

The Future of Children says that the best evidence points to early intervention, including home-visiting programs aimed at pregnant teens and their at-risk infants, early education programs for disadvantaged young children, and school-based initiatives to prevent drug use and dropping out. Moreover, community-based programs that focus on the family and improving parenting skills have been shown to effectively deter young offenders from future involvement with the justice system.

In the Washington Post this week, Future of Children Senior Editor Ron Haskins urged politicians, educators, community leaders, ministers and parents to teach young people that the decisions they make as they transition to adults will greatly influence their circumstances later in life. He cited research showing that of US adults who finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children, only about 2 percent live in poverty and about three quarters have joined the middle class. Thus, investing more in prevention than incarceration should more effectively reduce delinquency and improve life outcomes for young adults. See the Future of Children issues on Juvenile Justice, Fragile Families, and School Readiness to learn more about this topic.

Children and the Prison Boom: Finding Solutions

The era of skyrocketing US incarceration rates since the 1970s has been dubbed the “Prison Boom,” and rightfully so. Future of Children authors Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western report a fivefold rise, from about 100 to 500 prisoners for every 100,000 people. A major concern for policymakers and children’s advocates is that many of those incarcerated are parents. Among African American children who grew up during the Prison Boom, one in four had a parent (most often a father) incarcerated at some point during childhood.

As the New York Times wrote recently, families and children with an incarcerated father can face considerable hardship, apart from the challenges associated with the father’s criminality. While identifying a causal relationship between incarceration and various child and family outcomes is difficult, quality research continues to develop in this area. Recent studies find a link to child behavioral problems and school readiness, as well as housing insecurity and homelessness.

There is much discussion about ways to reduce the prison population, from increasing the number of police on the streets, to drug-treatment or faith-based programs. Based on the best research available, the Future of Children’s policy recommendations focus on drug offenders and parole violators. Solutions include intensive community supervision, drug treatment when necessary, and more effective responses to parole violation. The White House highlights one program recommended by Wildeman and Western. Project HOPE in Hawaii significantly reduced drug use and other offenses by administering swift, certain, but very short jail stays to probation violators.

As local, state, and federal leaders seek more effective alternatives to long jail and prison sentences, they should look to quality research to guide policy. See the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families for more information on this topic.

High-Quality Early Education

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama called on states to help him make high-quality preschool available to every child in the US. He said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

A recent New York Times Op-Ed by David Brooks explains that the existing federal preschool program, Head Start, has yielded null or weak results since its start in the 1960s. But several states, including Georgia, Oklahoma, and New Jersey, have tried in recent years to establish more effective alternatives, with higher performance standards and better-trained teachers.

Although these state programs are in their early stages, studies confirm that high-quality early education can improve literacy (see the Future of Children issue on Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-first Century) and even close racial-ethnic gaps in school readiness. In the Future of Children issue on School Readiness, experts describe what effective programs should look like. First, they should have a high-quality education component, meaning well-trained teachers, a high teacher-student ratio, and a rigorous curriculum. Second, they should train teachers to identify children with behavioral or health problems to help them receive the care they need. Third, they should emphasize the role of parents in student learning. Finally, they should have strong ties to kindergarten programs to ensure that children make a smooth transition to elementary school.

As states act on President Obama’s call, the implementation and practice of these programs should be based on the best evidence to date. Visit the Future of Children website for a summary of research findings and policy recommendations.

The Dropout Problem and What Can Be Done About It

The Wall Street Journal recently released some staggering statistics: less than 40% of Americans over age 25 with less than a high school diploma are employed, and those who are employed make about $23,400 on average. Another report by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research indicates that about a third of young men with less than a high school degree have had contact with the criminal justice system. While there is often controversy as to how dropout rates should be measured, the Future of Children volume America’s High Schools points out that even the most optimistic figures suggest that too many students are leaving school early.

Authors John H. Tyler and Magnus Lofstrom in their chapter on “Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery” point out that while much is known about the characteristics of students who do not complete high school, much less is known about the reasons why. A student’s decision to drop out of school, say the authors, is affected by a number of complex factors including student characteristics such as poor school performance and engagement, school characteristics related to school resources and student-teacher ratios, and family characteristics such as parent socioeconomic status and family structure.

Due to the wide range of factors associated with dropout rates, some communities are pushing for a more comprehensive prevention approach. PBS NewsHour reports that in Washington, D.C., individual success stories will be advertised at bus stops and on radio commercials – efforts by a truancy task force created by health and family services and law enforcement agencies. In disciplining students who skip school many communities are placing greater emphasis on counseling, parenting classes, and community service and less exposure to the criminal justice system. Evaluating the effectiveness of these and other prevention efforts is important. As the Future of Children volume America’s High Schools indicates, although hundreds of dropout prevention programs exist, very little evidence has been collected regarding their effectiveness.

To combat the dropout problem, in his State of the Union President Obama urged states to require all students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18. In response to President Obama’s call, Senior Editor of the Future of Children Cecilia Rouse coauthored a New York Times piece suggesting that while President Obama’s efforts are a step in the right direction, the most effective solutions should begin much earlier. “Rigorous evidence gathered over decades suggests that some of the most promising approaches need to start (early); preschool for 3- and 4- year-olds, who are fed and taught in small groups, followed up with home visits by teachers and with group meetings of parents; reducing class size in the early grades; and increasing teacher salaries from kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Read more about programs for improving outcomes among adolescents and young adults in the Future of Children volumes School Readiness, Transition to Adulthood and Juvenile Justice.

Education for Homeless Children and Youth

In The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies, the Future of Children author Richard J. Murnane explains that the American ideal of equal educational opportunity for all children is not often the reality. According to the America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010 report, one group for whom this may be especially true is the 1.6 million children and youth (1 in 45) who experience homelessness each year.

Homelessness and other forms of housing instability such as doubling up and frequent moving can be traumatic experiences for children. Families are often forced to split up or move into shelters with chaotic and unsafe environments. For the 42% of homeless children who are age six or under, these early experiences may have negative effects on development and school readiness. The barriers young children in disadvantaged circumstances face, as well as policy recommendations for improving school readiness are discussed in the Future of Children volume School Readiness.

For homeless children already enrolled in school, a review of the literature reveals lower levels of school attendance and achievement when compared to other low-income children. They are also more likely to be placed in special education classes, score lower on standardized tests, and be asked to repeat a grade. Moreover, 75% of homeless or runaway youth have dropped out or will drop out of school. The Future of Children volumes America’s High Schools and The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies discuss ways to prevent dropout and improve the education of children living in poverty.

In 2002, the federal government reauthorized the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in an effort to remediate educational barriers for homeless children. The Act allows children and youth who do not have a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence to immediately enroll in school and to receive services such as free transportation to either their school of origin or local school, immediate special education, and free school meals without an application.

While the McKinney-Vento Act is definitely a huge step toward equal educational opportunity, it is not enough to bring down many of the barriers homeless children face. During the recession years, the number of families at risk of experiencing homelessness increased, putting greater pressure on this issue. At this year’s National Conference for the Institute for Children, Poverty, & Homelessness, researchers and practitioners met to exchange ideas for educating homeless students and improving the circumstances of their families. A common theme at the conference was the importance of collaboration and community partnerships.

For information on homelessness and housing insecurity among Fragile Families see Fragile Families research briefs. Also see the Future of Children volume on Fragile Families and other volumes on the Future of Children website:

Prekindergarten Programs Affected by Recession

“Children who attend center care or preschool programs enter school more ready to learn, but both the share of children enrolled in these programs and the quality of care they receive differ by race and ethnicity. Black children are more likely to attend preschool than white children, but may experience lower-quality care. Hispanic children are much less likely than white children to attend preschool. The types of preschool that children attend also differ. Both black and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to attend Head Start.” (The Future of Children: School Readiness: Closing Ethnic and Racial Gaps)

Public funding of early childhood care and education, particularly Head Start, has made some progress in reducing ethnic and racial gaps in preschool attendance. Magnuson and Waldfogel, in their chapter in the School Readiness volume of the Future of Children, conclude that “substantial increases in Hispanic and black children’s enrollment in preschool, alone or in combination with increases in preschool quality, have the potential to decrease school readiness gaps.”

Although we know how beneficial it is for children to attend preschool or prekindergarten, the expansion of these programs has slowed down and in some cases has halted or reversed due to budget cuts. “Roughly a quarter of the nation’s 4-year-olds and more than half of 3-year-olds attend no preschool, either public or private. Families who earn about $40,000 to $50,000 annually face the greatest difficulties because they make too much to qualify for many publicly funded programs, but can’t afford private ones, said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.”

According to Pre-K Now, state moneys for prekindergarten more than doubled nationally to $5.1 billion, while at the same time access increased from a little more than 700,000 children to more than 1 million over the past decade. But in the 2009-10 school year, state budget cuts began affecting the programs.

Despite these challenges, early childhood learning advocates are encouraged by a recent federal emphasis on improving early childhood programs. As noted in the Huffington Post’s piece Public Pre-Kindergarten Programs Slowed, Even Reversed, By Recession, “nine states were awarded a collective $500 million in grants last month to improve access to and the quality of early childhood programs for kids from birth to age 5. A month earlier, President Barak Obama announced new rules under which lower-performing Head Start programs will compete for funding,” In an effort to improve the quality of pre-kindergarten programs. (Huffington Post 1/17/12)

For more on education policies that impact children, go to the Future of Children website: