The Time Is Now To Press For Universal Preschool

Jeff Bryant

Too often, when it comes to determining whether a new public program is too expensive or not, no one asks, “Compared to what?”

What high-performing business, for instance, would forego the need to invest new capital in something that is vital to its profitability and success down the road? The immediate costs of investing in something vital now, when compared to the significant long-term costs of inaction or inadequate measures, make the decision a no-brainer.

That’s probably why business leaders recently wrote an open letter to President Obama and members of Congress urging them to invest in providing American children universal access to preschool education.

As reported by Think Progress, the letter – signed by representative from huge corporations and from local Chambers of Commerce and business roundtables – emphasized “the importance of early childhood education in developing a skilled workforce and creating economic growth.”

From a business standpoint, investing more in early childhood education now is indeed a “no-brainer,” as Salon’s Joan Walsh wrote earlier this year. Spending money on early childhood education has the backing of military leaders, law enforcement groups, and the financial community.

The overarching argument for government funding of early childhood education is that “we pay now or pay much more later.”

However, making a case for universal pre-K based on economics alone is not what’s going to ultimately push the president’s initiative through. After all, if rational economics were a driving force in our political system, we wouldn’t still be talking about sequestration.

What’s going to have to happen is for pre-K proponents to make their case based on the politics. Fortunately, the politics of pre-K are starting to look better, and the timing for a concerted push for pre-K might be just about right.

Stop Equivocating

As Walsh pointed out in the article cited above, what often thwarts the political will to enact effective pre-K legislation are issues at the periphery. Even though there’s a broad consensus that early childhood education is essential to children’s future success, even people who are inclined to favor some government funding of preschool get into spats over how extensive the benefits really are, what the delivery method should be (Head Start or otherwise), and where the cutoff should be drawn in terms of who qualifies.

The crux of the matter always seems to be that at some point government funding of preschool is a waste because either it’s not effective, not done right, or not needed.

Writing in the pages of Education Week, William T. Gormley Jr. – a university professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and co-director of the Center for Research on Children – sorted out this “fierce debate” into a consensus view that should resolve the conflict.

The “common ground” Gormley identified in the pre-K debate was that:

  • “High-quality pre-K programs can boost school readiness substantially, for disadvantaged children.” Beyond the much-cited Perry Preschool Project, high-quality universal preschool programs have “demonstrated big gains in school readiness for poor children.”
  • Any “fade out” in “cognitive” (i.e., academic) benefits from high-quality pre-K that can occur in later years is likely “modest.” A 2010 Head Start evaluation that evidenced a more “dramatic” fade out was not conclusive because it “included high-quality, low-quality, and medium-quality programs.”
  • “Even if some initial fade-out occurs, the long-term benefits of a high-quality pre-K program can be substantial. These include higher high school graduation rates, lower rates of juvenile delinquency, less substance abuse, and higher adult earnings.”

So, that’s the research. Where “the fuss” occurs, according to Gormley, is where to draw the line in terms of who gets served – middle-class children? – whether “large-scale programs” can work, and at what point the benefits of large-scale universal pre-K programs exceed the costs.

Here again, the fight is only marginally worth having. Although poor children need high-quality pre-K programs the most, “middle-class children benefit, too.” Issues with “fade-out” of academic gains can be addressed with “strategic decisions” about what goes on in kindergarten and the later grades. And the much harder to measure benefits of learning “soft skills” such as attentiveness, cooperation, politeness, and fair play far outweigh the price tag we put on this in the present tense.

True, having the research on your side never decided a political debate. But the politics of pushing through pre-K is starting to fall into place.

Democrats Are On Board

President Obama and congressional leaders in the Democratic Party are already out in front of this campaign. A month before the business group cited above penned its letter, Obama submitted a budget that included $75 billion to fund a “Preschool for All Initiative.”

Then in June, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington announced a Senate bill – signed by her and three fellow Democratic senators – that would press the president’s initiative for “universal access to all children, small classes that work on students’ behavioral and cognitive development, preschools that have close working relationships with local school districts, and family support provisions for families on shaky financial ground.”

At the state level, lawmakers in Minnesota – a state with Democratic majorities in both houses and a Democratic governor – recently “approved $40 million in funding for all-day kindergarten and more money for pre-kindergarten scholarships for children from low-income families” according to the Hechinger Report. The legislation provides “scholarships to about 10,000 children from low-income families in each of the next two years” and enough money to ensure “all of Minnesota’s 337 school districts will have access to free all-day kindergarten, by the fall of 2014.

In the wings, recently retired Secretary of State and likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced her joint venture with a California-based policy group that “aims to bring parents, businesses, and communities together on behalf of children under age five.”

In her speech announcing the venture, at the Clinton Global Initiative, Clinton emphasized the need for increased access to early childhood education, linking it directly to “job-creating economic development.”

Where Are The Republicans?

Certainly there are conservative Republicans who are going to oppose any proposal stemming from the Democratic Party, regardless of its worth. But there are signs even conservative states are starting to back more money for pre-K.

Again at the Hechinger Report, a different article recounted how legislators in the very red state of Mississippi passed the state’s first pre-K bill to create new programs that “will serve about 12 percent of four-year-olds in the state by providing $8 million in funding over the next three to five years.” The programs also have to enforce “new and rigorous guidelines around teacher qualifications and curriculum, and raise half the cost of their programs.”

The Hechinger article also linked to an article quoting Mississippi Sen. Brice Wiggins, a Republican, calling pre-K a “bipartisan issue.”

“We made a bold and budget-wise commitment to quality pre-k for the simple reason that it’s the one of the best things we can do to give our kids the foundation they need for academic success and meet the future needs of our employers as well,” Wiggins said.

That article also explained that Republican governors in six states, and Democratic governors in two states, have proposed or signed laws supporting pre-K.

The pressure for conservatives to take action on early childhood education will intensify. Sequestration cuts to Head Start program have already been devastating, resulting in 70,000 children losing access to programs and program quality deterioration due to teacher layoffs, shortened school days, or abbreviated school years.

Now that a new round of sequester cuts is due in October 1, news of even steeper cuts in services will likely result in a widespread outcry from the electorate as state legislatures are reconvening in the fall.

 

A Summer To Create A Groundswell

Writing for The New York Times, columnist Gail Collins recently warned pre-K proponents, “Nothing major is going to happen for early-childhood education without an enormous groundswell of public demand.”

With the politics starting to go their way, pre-K proponents need to start that groundswell now and build it over the summer. Compared to inactivity or continued cuts, the case for early childhood education is increasingly too difficult for politicians to ignore.

But the time for measured arguments about the evidence is over. The economics of early childhood education are simply not going to win the day. What will is an outpouring of voices to humanize the case for giving our nation’s youngest citizens an opportunity they deserve.

What needs to lead the rhetoric are stories of underserved children who got a break because they had a safe and supportive place to go when they were three and four years old. What needs to advance the argument are the stories of struggling parents everywhere just waiting to be told.

Get those stories out.

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