Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The New Kindergarten: The Case for Universal Pre-Kindergarten Isn't as Strong as It Seems

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The New Kindergarten: The Case for Universal Pre-Kindergarten Isn't as Strong as It Seems

Article excerpt

IN HER CHRISTMAS 2007 CAMPAIGN AD, HILLARY Clinton was shown arranging presents labeled "Universal Health Care" "Alternative Energy; "Bring Troops Home," and "Middle-Class Tax Breaks" She then paused, looking somewhat puzzled, before delivering the punch line: "Where did I put universal pre-K?"

"Universal pre-K" has become a politically popular campaign cause. Clinton is no longer a candidate, of course, but Barack Obama has promised an ambitious pre-kindergarten agenda; John McCain's advisers have hinted that he will do the same. And why not? The rhetoric surrounding pre-K programs is quite extraordinary: They close the achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers; they prepare all children, including middle-income children, for school; and they provide financial relief to working mothers who have been paying for child care.

Yet as the Clinton TV spot unwittingly suggested, universal pre-K programs do not have an obvious place in today's crowded child-care world. Sometimes called "the new kindergarten," pre-K is in most cases just what its name implies: a year of publicly funded half-day school before kindergarten-for all children, regardless of whether their mothers work and regardless of family income. Pre-K has hardly enjoyed a universal embrace. Twice in recent history, attempts to create similar national programs foundered on controversy and went down to defeat. In California, voters recently turned their backs on a statewide plan.

In a 2006 referendum, the Golden State's voters rejected universal "free" preschool by a margin of three to two. Proposition 82, "Preschool for All" was backed by the activist actor-director Rob Reiner and the California Teachers Association; it would have given all California four-year-olds "equal access to quality preschool programs" for three hours a day for about eight months a year--to be paid for by a 1.7 percentage-point increase in the tax rate for single individuals making more than $400,000 and couples making more than $800,000 (almost a 20 percent tax increase, by the way). Although attendance was theoretically voluntary, the proposition would have effectively withdrawn government subsidies from other forms of care, so that families needing or wanting a free or subsidized program would have had no choice but to use their local school's pre-K.

The referendum sparked a statewide debate that went beyond the typical mix of platitudes, generalizations, and exaggerations. Yes on 82, the prime sponsor of the referendum, repeated the oddly precise claim of RAND researchers that "every dollar California invests in a quality, universal preschool program will return $2.62 to society because of savings from reduced remedial education costs, lower high school dropout rates, and the economic benefits of a better-educated work force."

Opponents pointed out, however, that more than 60 percent of California four-year-olds were already in a child-care center, a nursery school, or Head Start, and that the new program would have subsidized the middleclass families now paying for child care while, in the words of a Los Angeles Times editorial, establishing "a cumbersome bureaucracy ... under the state Department of Education, which has done a disappointing job with K-12 schools."

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Strangely, the overwhelming rejection of universal pre-K by the voters of our largest state has had no discernible impact on the national debate. It's not that California just happened to have more preschool programs than the rest of the country. Nationwide, about 74 percent of four-year-olds now spend time in some form of organized child care.

To understand what is going on, a little history will help. Beginning in the 1950s, a steadily higher proportion of married women with children took jobs outside the home. Between 1950 and 1970, the proportion of married mothers in the work force doubled, rising from about 20 percent to about 40 percent. …

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