Universal Preschool in California

An overwhelming body of research shows that critics of the proposed program are wrong.

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Today, California voters will go to the polls to vote on Proposition 82, which would create a universal public preschool system for four-year-olds, funded by a 1.7 percent income tax increase on individual Californians earning more than $400,000 a year (or married couples earning more than $800,000.) Given the overwhelming body of research showing that students benefit from high quality preschool, particularly those students from low-income backgrounds, what are the critics saying?

In Sunday’s New York Times, David Brooks outlined the seemingly “moderate”argument for opposition. Brooks conceded—as he must—that preschool benefits low-income students, but he argued that the fatal flaw of Prop. 82 is its universality. Lots of middle-class students already attend preschool, he notes, and the benefits of preschool are most powerful for low-income students, so why not target programs to those most in need? He argued that the push for universality comes from “special interest” groups—the teacher unions—who are engaged in “public sector empire-building at its worst.” The unions, Brooks argued, would “create the same stultifying certification process that keeps good people out of schools.” By catering to special interests, the initiative represents “the tragedy of American liberalism,” Brooks said. California voters should oppose the initiative and instead support, among other things, efforts to “spend more to get disadvantaged kids into preschool” and initiatives to “raise salaries to keep the best teachers.”

We’ve seen this movie before. The 2006 debate mirrors one that took place 31 years ago over federal legislation to provide universal early childhood education in America’s public schools. When the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, proposed a system of universal preschool that would be connected to the existing public school system, critics said he was engaged in a naked power grab intended primarily to boost his own union’s membership.

Shanker, who hardly shrunk from power, knew that a universal preschool system run through the public schools would benefit his union, but he didn’t see that as inconsistent with the public good. Teacher unions would be a powerful constituency to ensure that preschool funding was maintained at adequate levels. Under a universal system, these teachers would ally with middle class parents—already stretched thin—to ensure the program’s survival, even in times of budget cuts. Teacher unions would bargain for better wages for preschool teachers, and higher teacher standards—like the requirement of a college degree—and reduce teacher turnover. Under Shanker’s proposal then, and Prop 82 today, universal pre-K would look like universal Social Security and universal public schooling. These are not the “tragedy of American liberalism,” but rather liberalism’s glory: programs committed to the common good and frustratingly difficult for conservatives to dismantle.

Moreover, a universal system of public preschool for four-year-olds is more likely that the currently fragmented system to provide low-income students with access to economically-mixed pre-K environments, which is crucial to the learning of the low-income students for whom Brooks professes to care so deeply. As W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University notes, “Studies show that poor children benefit from attending preschool education with middle-income children.” For example, in mixed-income preschools, low-income students expand the richness of their language when exposed to the larger vocabularies that middle-income students bring, on average.

The system that Brooks champions—one targeted at low income students apart from others—would be not all that different from what we have now: a politically weak program, lacking middle-class champions, and often poorly run. While Brooks worries about “displacing much of what now exists,” the truth is that many families, middle class and poor, are dissatisfied with their current preschool options, which lack oversight and have low standards. Brooks would keep preschool outside the public, unionized system, making it likely that preschool teachers would remain poorly paid. And his proposal would have less potential for class mixing than a universal system. “Separate but equal” for low-income students might be cheaper than universal pre-K, and put less of a burden on high-bracket Californians, but let’s not pretend it would be better for the so-called beneficiaries.

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