Academic journal article Education Next

The Preschool Picture

Academic journal article Education Next

The Preschool Picture

Article excerpt

The campaign for universal preschool education in the United States has gained great momentum. Precisely as strategists intended, many Americans have come to believe that pre-kindergarten is a good and necessary thing for government to provide, even that not providing it will cruelly deprive our youngest residents of their birthrights, blight their educational futures, and dim their life prospects. Yet a troubling contradiction bordering on dishonesty casts a shadow over today's mighty push for universal pre-K education in America (see "Preschool Puzzle," forum, Fall 2008).

The principal intellectual and moral argument that advocates make--and for which I have considerable sympathy--is similar to that of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) backers: giving needy kids a boost up the ladder of educational and later-life success by narrowing the achievement gaps that now trap too many of them on the lower rungs. Serious pursuit of that objective would entail intensive, educationally sophisticated programs, starting early in a child's life, perhaps even before birth, and enlisting and assisting the child's parents from day one.

Yet the programmatic and political strategy embraced by today's pre-K advocates is altogether different. They seek to furnish relatively skimpy preschool services to all 4 million of our nation's four-year-olds (and then, of course, all 4 million three-year-olds), preferably under the aegis of the public schools.

Either this discordant plan is a front for public school expansionism, bent on adding another grade or two to its current thirteen, and adding the staff (and dues-paying union members) that would accompany such growth, or it's a cynical calculation: only by appealing to the middle-class desire for taxpayers to underwrite the routine child-care needs of working parents will any movement occur on the pre-K front, and the heck with the truly disadvantaged youngsters who need more than that strategy will yield. On balance, it appears to me, the interests of poor kids are being subordinated to the politics of getting something enacted. And the unabashed reasoning behind this strategy is that nothing will be done if it's only for the poor. That's nonsense. America is awash in enormous, well-funded programs that target the poor. Medicaid and Pell Grants leap instantly to mind. And in the early-childhood field, of course, there is already Head Start--spending more per pupil than any universal pre-K program is likely to cost--as well as chunks of the big Title I program that pay for pre-K education.


Surely the advocates know this. Why, then, do they deny it?

Growing Interest

Pre-kindergarten is one of the hottest topics in American education in 2009. Twice during the presidential-campaign debates, Barack Obama termed early-childhood education one of his highest priorities, and even before serious planning got under way for an antirecession "stimulus" package, he had pledged to this priority an additional $10 billion in annual federal funding. Education secretary Arne Duncan is a strong booster of pre-K education, and Congress is busy on this front, too. The whopping economic-stimulus package enacted in February included $2.1 billion more for Head Start and $2 billion more for child care, plus additional funding for disabled preschoolers and some $54 billion in assistance to state and local education budgets.

In state capitals, meanwhile, many governors have embraced preschool with something like the fervor they brought to K--12 education reform during the late 20th century. Pre-K and kindergarten-expansion proposals topped their priorities in myriad "state of the state" messages in 2008. Even as the economy slowed and budgets tightened, state-funded pre-K programs added more than 100,000 youngsters, meaning that about one in four four-year-olds now takes part in such programs.

Preschool also looms large for some prominent education analysts who doubt that K-12 schooling alone can accomplish much gap closing due to other powerful forces in the lives of children and families. …

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