Can Centrists Leave Their Comfort Zone To Expand Pre-K?

Jeff Bryant

Building on President Obama’s “Preschool for All Initiative” proposed earlier this year – that would dramatically expand access to prekindergarten programs for 4-year olds – Democratic leaders in both chambers last week introduced the “Strong Start for America’s Children Act”.

The new bill differs somewhat from what the White House proposed, as explained by Education Week’s Alyson Klein, who examined a draft. But the major thrust remains to push through “a major remaking of the federal role in prekindergarten.’

If Conventional Wisdom holds, enacting some sort of bill that provides federal support for expanding pre-kindergarten education should be a slam-dunk.

The bill has the golden mantle of bipartisan support, with the sponsorship of Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.). As Klein reported, Rep. John Kline, (R-Minn.), the chairman of the House education committee, has already pledged to hold a hearing on early childhood education soon.”

Support for early childhood programs has been heralded by government leaders in places as politically diverse as San Francisco and Oklahoma.

Immediately upon the bill’s introduction, petitions of support went up on the Internet from advocates for public schools and moms. Also, leaders of the business community – including huge corporations, local Chambers of Commerce, and business roundtables – have strongly endorsed federal legislation to expand pre-K education. And spending money on early childhood education has the backing of military leaders, law enforcement groups, and the financial community.

Organizations that don’t always agree on education policies – such as teachers’ unions and corporate-backed organizations pushing “reform” efforts – threw in their support for the new legislation.

Even a Hollywood star at the media event to kick off the bill gave this new legislation the aura of being part of a mass movement people can all agree on.

With such diverse factions “crossing aisles” and “meeting in middles,” conventional wisdom would hold that pre-K expansion will be carried to victory on the back of a broad coalition of political centrism.

After all, studies continue to pour in showing the benefits of preschool to all sorts of developmental needs of children. A new one, from the Center for American Progress, found

High-quality preschool programs have been shown to reduce the school-readiness gap, especially for low-income children of color. Over the past decade, 40 states have initiated state-funded preschool programs, which serve about one-quarter of all 4-year-olds. A handful of states, including Oklahoma and Georgia, serve most of their 4-year-olds. Findings from these preschool programs, coupled with findings from longitudinal studies conducted over the past several decades, have shown that high-quality preschool can improve school readiness, particularly for children of color and children who are non-native English speakers.

But these are not conventional times, and anyone with a centrist mindset who is eager to back some sort of federal expansion of preschool education needs to think in unconventional ways and be willing to step outside the conventional comfort zone of D.C. politics.

Don’t Fall For The “Fade” Argument

No doubt, conservatives will continue to fight any effort to muster more federal support of preschool education based on their own narrow or distorted reading of the evidence, as an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) did in October.

In particular, conservatives will point again and again to a study of Head Start programs that showed that some academic benefits tend to fade after third grade. This point is neither accurate based on evidence nor sound in terms of philosophy.

Analysts at ReadyNation, a project of America’s Promise Alliance, looked at the evidence of a “fade” in a broad context and noticed Head Start had “longer-term impacts on some groups of children, such as African-American children or those with parents with depressive symptoms.”

Further, the study conservatives like to cite was in 2007, “before the higher quality standards now mandated were put into effect,” and it didn’t bother to look for “longer-term outcomes” that may “show up later in life.”

From a philosophical standpoint, as Chris Fitzsimons observed from his vantage point on the frontline of battling for pre-K education against staunch conservatives in North Carolina, even marginal evidence of fade away is to be expected “given that poverty and other risk factors don’t disappear as children reach middle school.” What’s surprising is that critics of early childhood education “use the fade away to blast programs that work instead of finding ways to continue to provide meaningful supports for the student and their families. Isn’t helping the kids the point, after all?”

Nevertheless, centrist-minded supporters of preschool expansion let conservative rhetoric about “fade” pull them further into adding inappropriate assessment requirements that are apt to turn off lawmakers from states that have to implement the requirements.

This may have the effect of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” as American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and early childhood education expert Nancy Carlson-Paige wrote recently. Of course, we need to assess young children’s progress,” they wrote, but “years of research demonstrate that the best way to assess young children’s learning is through the expertise of teachers who know how to observe and interpret children’s activities and behavior.”

Looking at the pros and cons of the current bill introduced in Congress, Sara Meade, who works for an education investment advising firm, wrote that the bill’s “focus on outcomes” doesn’t have to include “scary, NCLB [No-Child-Left-Behind]-style accountability” that is apt to make some supporters waiver from voting for the bill.

“On net,” she concluded, the bill, even as is, “would be a good thing for U.S. kids and pre-k quality and access nationally.”

Break Out Of The Budget Straightjacket

A big problem with relying on a political centrist position to push through federal backing of preschool expansion is that centrist politicians are bound to be reluctant to propose ways to pay for it.

When Obama introduced the legislation, he sought to pay for the increased federal spending with a tax on tobacco. As Klein explained in her analysis, the tobacco lobby pretty much hated on sight that idea. So then, as Politico reported, the White House did so little to muster an effort to back a new tax the “tobacco companies never worried about putting together a lobbying strategy to kill it.”

The congressional legislation to expand preschool, on the other hand, would be paid for using the regular appropriations process, requiring lawmakers to introduce ways to cover the cost.

However, when it comes to fiscal matters, too many Republicans and Democrats have already “met in the middle” on fiscal matters and agreed with a conservative stance that cutting federal discretionary spending is the order of the day.

Because conservatives continue to define the terms of how to pay for anything, centrists are too reluctant to state how they would tap new revenues that are required for something like preschool expansion. That has to change for preschool expansion to become reality.

At some point a real leader on Capital Hill will need to step outside “the middle” and state that appropriating new money for educating young children – even if it is a tax – is a human priority.

As my colleague Richard Eskow wrote recently, to provide revenue for pre-K expansions (or any other kind of appropriations for that matter), what’s sorely needed is a “shift” in political discourse from a conversation about cutting spending, to the need for increasing taxes.

After all, if we could afford to bail out Wall Street, invade Iraq, and give oil companies huge tax breaks, then we can afford to care and educate our very young children – and not be afraid to say this.

Taking a stand for new taxes is not only the right thing to do, it’s the popular thing to do.

As Eskow explained, “new polling by Hart Research Associates, conducted for Americans for Tax Fairness, confirms and amplifies findings from earlier studies showing that Americans strongly support higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations. And when we say ‘strongly,’ we mean very strongly.” (emphasis original)

Despite conventional wisdom that “moderates” reject tax hikes, Eskow continued, “The Hart polling shows that moderates actually want these tax hikes –by an overwhelming 42-point margin. Registered independents, often thought of as the Holy Grail of electioneering, back them by a 19-point margin.”

No Time To Be Timid

The Beltway media narrative about failures to “meet in the middle” don’t apply to enacting new legislation to expand preschool education. The “middle ground” is already pushing for it.

But if centrist-minded Democrats and moderate Republicans continue to shift that middle ground more and more toward conservatives, the center will not hold.

The only good way forward is for leaders to act on the courage of their convictions, not the demands for more and more compromises.

Writing at The New York Times, economics professor James Heckman – an authoritative proponent of early childhood education whose breakthrough research helped provide impetus for the current bill – explained, “Everyone knows that education boosts productivity and enlarges opportunities, so it is natural that proposals for reducing inequality emphasize effective education for all.”

But current policy leaders, Heckman maintained, are plagued with “unfounded doubts” that are preventing them from “taking new and more effective approaches.”

“Our choice in these difficult economic times,” he concluded, “is not just whether to spend or cut, but whether to choose knowledge over conventional wisdom.”

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