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Does Obama’s Ambitious Universal Pre-K Program Stand a Chance?

The long-term benefits of pre-k education are well established, but an opportunity to invest in it for every child in America is caught up in political stalemate.


In the 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said that one of his priorities was to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” he said. “So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

That same month, Obama rolled out the details of this program at a Head Start Center in Georgia. He proposed an ambitious federal-state partnership to provide pre-k education to all four-year-olds with the federal government matching funds with states to establish preschool for children in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.

Research shows the long-term benefits of quality pre-k education, yet most of the education funding in this country goes toward older kids in high school and in college. A report from the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., found that $8,602 was spent per child between the age of three and five, while $13,663 was spent per child between the ages of 12 and 18. Considering the long-term benefits of early childhood education, many have suggested that our education dollars would be better spent on children in their early years.

Research shows the long-term benefits of quality pre-k education, yet most of the education funding in this country goes toward older kids.

In recent months, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has traveled around the country stumping for the president's proposed program. Despite these efforts by Duncan, education policy observers say that this plan has little chance of passage in Congress. The sticking point is—as it so often is—the funding. To cover the $75 billion tab for the 10-year implementation this program, the federal tobacco tax would be nearly doubled from $1.01 to $1.95.

Andrew Rotherham, a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education and the author of Eduwonk, said that House Republicans are ideologically committed to reducing the size of the federal government. Therefore, they will reject any proposal, even one with great promise, that involves raising taxes in any way.

The fact that this proposal involves such a large increase in taxes, particularly a hike in the cigarette tax, which would also be opposed by the powerful tobacco lobby, is a signal to lawmakers that Obama was never very serious about it in the first place.

Rotherham believes that Republicans aren’t opposed to providing more money for pre-k education. In fact, some very impressive programs have come from states with Republican governors, including Georgia and Oklahoma. (In Georgia, all children have the opportunity to enroll for free in a private or public pre-school. This program, which began in 1993, is funded by the state lottery tax and is currently serving approximately 84,000 children every year. Oklahoma has a similar program that served 40,000 children in 2012.) When his group surveyed policy insiders, it found that there wasn’t a lot of hostility toward the notion of government-supported preschool. Rotherham thought that Obama’s plan might have broader appeal if the funding situation was different.

Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, echoed Rotherham’s pessimistic view of the success of this program. Petrilli said that the conventional wisdom is that this proposal is “dead on arrival.” He said that House Republicans might support universal pre-school if funding came from cuts in other programs. In a post for Flypaper, the Fordham Institute’s blog, Petrilli suggested that Obama fund this program by making cuts to the TRIO programs, Title II of ESEA, and Pell grants.

Petrilli says that the TRIO programs, which provide funding to universities to support college students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and Title II of ESEA, which goes toward professional development programs for teachers and principals, are simply not effective. He would also like to cut the Pell Grant program because those college loans are mostly flowing into low-quality, remedial tracks at community colleges.

But even a different funding scheme might not appease House Republicans, Petrilli said. They would be unlikely to support any major social program like this one. He was more optimistic about state level efforts. As state budgets begin to recover from the economic downturn, we might gradually see universal preschool programs coming from the state legislatures.

My son, Jonah, attended a humble preschool program housed at the local YMCA when he was three. At that time, we were just starting our professional lives after a misspent decade in graduate school. I taught a class at Columbia, and my husband had an entry level position at a bank. My son’s preschool tab was our biggest annual expense, after rent and utilities. We could afford it, but just barely—it was a big chunk of our budget, but we thought it was worth it.

There, Jonah picked up skills that we couldn’t teach him at home. He learned how to sit patiently in circle group. He learned how to share his trucks. He learned about the rituals of the classroom. He walked into kindergarten prepared to continue learning on day one.

As Washington fights about funding, another cohort of poor kids will enter kindergarten behind the middle- and upper-class kids. That early gap in ability will be maintained throughout their educational career. Somehow, perhaps with compromises made on both sides, the political stalemate in Washington around universal preschool must be broken.