Brain Child: Public Policy is
a Child's Third Parent
by Mike Phillips, Scripps
Howard News Service, May 26, 2003
Parents are every baby's first teachers.
But right behind them are the policy makers —who regulate or don't
regulate day care centers, who decide what social workers will teach
parents and what they will teach children, who decide whether public
dollars will be devoted more to the early years of childhood or more to
the later years, who decide what children will be taught, how they will be
taught and when they will be taught.
Public policy is a child's third parent.
Just like human parents, public policy in America has a spotty record of
applying the power of brain science to how children are brought up.
The chief policy-maker of all, President Bush, has focused his
administration on reading and readiness for school. One dramatic statistic
drives this focus: By the fourth grade, 40 percent of America's children
still can't read.
Scientists who study how children's brains grow say this an immensely
important issue, but it's only part of the early childhood challenge.
Social, emotional and physical development is also determined by how the
brain grows. These qualities affect a child's future life as much as
reading and school readiness.
The nation's first and still most controversial early childhood program,
Head Start, may be getting a new start, one of many new starts for this
program. An offshoot is focusing clearly and strongly on developing young
brains. A debate rages over how to administer the mother program.
Meanwhile, Head Start reaches only a small portion of the nation's young
The early childhood program that touches most American youngsters is day
care. Day care is not a program so much as phenomenon — a phenomenon that
will influence some two-thirds of all children during their most critical
developmental years. States are responsible for regulating day care. Some
do so vigorously. But across America, some researchers believe, more than
a third of day cares are so bad, they're actually harmful to the children
The nation's childhood policy-makers have started to apply brain science
to policy — goaded, often, by grassroots activists who are missionaries
for using this powerful new tool to improve children's lives.
One grassroots movement is universal pre-K, a movement that seeks to
provide voluntary, cognitively designed childcare to all 3- and
4-year-olds. This promises to be the public policy debate that sweeps away
Today's package of Brainchild stories explores all of these facets of
America's third parent plus one other that should interest any taxpayer:
where the money goes.