A clear majority of Americans agree: high-quality preschool should be guaranteed by the public, just as our primary and secondary schools are. It’s an idea that Democrats are hoping to add to their legacy — something to stand along aside Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit as lasting institutions in American life. But it’s also a policy that even business-minded Republicans have reason to support. Not only does it provide a cost-effective educational intervention for our kids; it also gives their parents the freedom to participate in the job market.
On July 7, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania introduced legislation to Congress proposing state-run pre-kindergarten programs that would be freely available to families earning less than $48,000 a year. Unfortunately, Casey’s bill, which was an amendment to No Child Left Behind, has stalled on Capitol Hill. However, at the state level, several Republican governors have already gotten behind their own proposals, creating bipartisan support for an issue whose time has come.
Around the world, early childhood education has long been understood as a necessary feature of modern economies. Japan provides publicly funded kindergartens for children ages 3-6. Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Demark, Estonia, Malta and Slovenia all guarantee children as young as 1 the legal right to a preschool seat, with programs often beginning around the end of parental leave. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and Hungary, among others, subsidized childcare begins at age 3. According to the European Commission, children in these countries are typically entitled to early childhood education and care free of charge.
In the U.S. there is strong popular support for following this example. According to an August, 2014 Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans “favor using federal money to make sure high-quality preschool education programs are available for every child in America.” A 2013 poll from Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research found that 86 percent of Americans “want the federal government to help states and local communities build better preschool services and make them more accessible to children from low- and middle-income families.”
Alone, these numbers should give pause to politicians who oppose federally funded universal pre-K. But there’s an economic basis for it, too.
Economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman argues that the earlier investments are made in an individual’s education, the larger their returns later in life — in terms of academic achievement, employment and income. Furthermore, investing in early childhood education can trim social spending in other areas, by reducing crime, teen pregnancy and preventable health problems.
“If you take disadvantaged, minority children starting at age six to eight weeks — I mean, they’re literally just born — and you follow these kids and give them intensive interventions for about eight years, you can boost their IQ at least up to age 21,” Heckman told PBS.
For conservatives, expanding early childhood education can be an attractive platform for reducing income inequality. Although Republican lawmakers have begun to acknowledge this much-discussed problem, they are opposed to supporting collective bargaining, boosting the minimum wage and implementing workplace protections such as paid sick leave. For them, early childhood education can be a politically attractive alternative.
Persistent gridlock in Washington means we are unlikely to see a national pre-K program passed any time soon, but prominent conservatives at the federal level acknowledge that the idea is worthwhile. As Lamar Alexander, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told NPR in November, “The question is not whether early childhood education is a good idea. It’s how best to encourage it.”
At the state level, where majority-Republican state governments have less pressure to play politics, there is a greater possibility for pre-K funding to move forward. And some Republican governors have taken up the issue. Greg Abbott, the Texas governor elected in November, declared during his first State of the State address that early education was his “first emergency item as governor.” In May he signed a bill increasing funding for public pre-kindergarten programs in his state, granting $130 million for districts that offer services meeting state standards.
North Dakota recently established its own prekindergarten program, while Georgia Republicans can boast of one of the oldest prekindergarten programs in the nation. And Florida funds a free pre-kindergarten program enrolling 80 percent of the state’s 4 year olds. As part of his re-election campaign, Florida governor Rick Scott tweeted a brag about this program: “Florida ranks first in the nation for access to free pre-kindergarten. We need to keep it that way.”
Progressive education advocates in these states have complained that Republicans are not living up to their promises when it comes to supporting these programs. In Texas, for example, the $130 million in pre-kindergarten funding only partially restores the $208 million in prekindergarten grants cut under Rick Perry. Nevertheless, most progressives are supportive. The Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers called the new law “a step in the right direction” and “a good start,” while also calling for more, including measures to open the program to a greater number of middle-class families.
Some who believe that budget cuts are necessary argue that pre-K is a worthy cause, but an unaffordable one. Yet serving our kids does not necessarily require new taxes. State leaders such as Abbott and Scott are giving away hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax cuts, a move which disproportionately benefits the wealthy. If they simply maintained current revenue streams, they could easily ensure that all kids in their states get the early education opportunities they need.
There’s no question that affordable, quality pre-kindergarten is critical for today’s working parents. Implementing it is not just good politics; it also makes economic sense. Left or right, politicians who are savvy enough to see this may well find themselves at the forefront of a winning, lasting and worthy crusade.