by Jeff Bryant
After the horrendous slaughter of 20 school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a heartbroken President Obama implored the nation, “This is our first task – caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.”
“Surely we can do better,” he stated.
Just shy of two months later, Obama presented us with an opportunity to “do better” for children when he included in his State of the Union address a call to provide preschool education to every 3- and 4-year-old in America.
The details, as reported by the Associated Press, revealed that the plan doesn’t cover “all” 3- and 4-year-olds but instead starts with “any 4-year-old whose family income is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level – a more generous threshold than the current Head Start program.”
Plus, “communities and child care providers [would] compete for grants to serve children 3 and younger, starting from birth. And once a state has established its program for 4-year-olds, it can use funds from the program to offer full-day kindergarten.”
Despite the limited scope, this is still the right thing to do for many reasons.
But part of “getting it right” for children is calling out and countering the forces intent on blocking this initiative and making the case to the American people in a way that clarifies minds, commits hearts and moves people to action.
Why This Is The Right Thing To Do
From a cost-benefit perspective, expanded early childhood education is, as Salon’s Joan Walsh observed, a “no-brainer.”
It’s a financial relief to parents with young children. As the percent of child-rearing families who have “a male breadwinner and a female homemaker” has plummeted to just one in five, the financial burden of child care has become unsustainable for families with children under the age of 5 – especially those families making less than $1,500 a month.
It will “strengthen America’s human capital.” Because “the first five years of a child’s cognitive and emotional development establish the foundation for learning and achievement throughout life,” if we address children’s socialization and education needs while they’re young, they’ll be far less apt to later on drop out of school, commit crimes and become chronically unemployed.
It will “help address our growing economic inequality and diminishing rates of upward mobility.” In a country where there is an “increasing number of children who are being raised by low- and lower-middle-income single parents, particularly single mothers,” there are growing numbers of children who are “more likely to struggle in school, to earn less income as adults, and to experience a wide range of less-favorable life outcomes. By investing in these children while they are still young, we can have a much greater impact at less cost.”
The president crystallized this argument with the point – proven by research – that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on.”
So given these outstanding cost-benefit ratios, surely universal Pre-K will soon be the law of the land. Right?
The Republicans Are Coming
It should come as no surprise to anyone in the Democratic Party that Republicans will likely greet Obama’s preschool proposal with the same message they regard the rest of his proposals: “dead in the water.”
Expect Republicans to turn proposals for universal pre-K all into an issue that is mostly about the deficit and the need to cut spending – as they have with virtually every domestic issue. And the topic of pre-K – regardless of any current and future economic benefits – will immediately be forced into a scarce resources frame where it can only be made possible if we cut something else. (Pell grants anyone?)
Second, even the most pro-education Republican is going to discount any plan for government-assisted pre-K as something we’ve already tried and it didn’t work.
That’s already happening, as Education Week’s Alyson Klein reported. She noted that Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and a Republican, was “eying the proposal with some skepticism.”
His primary misgiving: “Too many questions remain unanswered” about the current federal program targeted toward young children, Head Start.
Centrists Don’t Help
Unfortunately, the arguments Republicans make against early childhood education are being reinforced by centrist-minded wonks.
They are quick to repeat Republican concerns about how “expensive” government-sponsored preschool might be “in today’s fiscal climate.”
They echo Republican perturbations about “quality” by claiming that preschool can only work “if it’s done right.”
And a favorite of this contingency is to strap on their business-speak and talk about the Very Serious Issue of bringing education services “to scale.”
“The biggest issue with high quality preschool is simply that we don’t know if we can do it on large scale,” we’re told.
We’re exhorted to be alarmed about A Totally Massive Problem throughout all of education that “some schools are excellent and make an enormous difference in kids’ lives, but there are also a lot of middling to poor institutions.”
The misgivings of centrists are mostly unfounded.
Why Centrists’ Concerns Are Mostly Unfounded
Too often, when it comes to determining whether a new public program is too expensive or not, no one asks, “Compared to what?”
If the budget Obama ultimately proposes for his preschool program is based on the above-mentioned CAP report, we’re talking about $100 billion over 10 years.
That sounds like a big, scary number, but compared to what? The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein did some comparison shopping and noticed that a recent study from the Urban Institute noted that our federal government spends 10 percent of discretionary income on children compared to 20 percent on defense. And “over the next 10 years, federal outlays on children will fall as a percentage of the budget (from 10 to 8 percent).”
Furthermore, if we as a society want to do something to improve the lives of children, that $100 billion outlay is probably a bargain compared to any other action we could take – that is, if there actually were another action centrist concern trolls were proposing.
Second, regarding the supposed quality issues with Head Start, not everyone agrees. Most people raising concerns about Head Start cite a Brookings study. But another credible study concluded something different: “For low-income children who participated in Head Start in the 1960s through 1980s, the program seems to have generated lasting improvements in a range of key outcomes that society cares about, including health, educational attainment, labor market earnings, and perhaps criminal behavior as well.”
Third, this handwringing about whether early childhood education can be brought “to scale” is a rabbit-hole argument. It comes from people under the false impression that schools can be run like businesses. They’ve never considered that maybe the reason quality schools at the pre-collegiate level can’t be “brought to scale” is because maybe school can’t be run like a pizza franchise. And they’ve reached an absurd conclusion that public schools have to attain a Lake Woebegone standard where there are no “middling to poor institutions” – a measure we apply to no other endeavors, public or private.
Centrist concerns over Obama’s preschool proposal are mostly about Republican appeasement. But when you know that Republicans are going to be against your proposal no matter what – a day before the White House release of the plan’s details, House Speaker John Boehner said “involving the federal government in early childhood education was ‘a good way to screw it up’” – then why continue to pursue a mythical middle ground?
What The Obama Team Must Do
What the Obama team is proposing for America’s children is the right thing to do. But the way it’s being pitched is wrong.
First, don’t make “research” central to the pitch. As Salon’s Walsh noted, “American social policy is rarely inspired by research.”
Second, stop talking about early childhood education as if it were a financial transaction – a dollar spent now with a return later on. Although White House folks are likely to be in the investment strata of society, most Americans aren’t. Instead of sinking costs into something that will eventually pay off, most Americans are thinking about the here and now. State why educating our youngest children is good now.
Third, don’t answer arguments about quality with layers of bureaucratic language about assessment. The whole notion that 4-year-olds should be tested is on shaky ground and likely doesn’t square with most Americans – especially parents who understand all too well that no two young children develop at the same pace.
If you want to show that you’re addressing issues with quality, don’t consult economists, consult people who actually know something about how young children develop and know that 4-year olds need a program that is broad-based, hands-on, and individualized – not too narrowly focused on academic skills.
Finally, and most importantly, frame the campaign for early childhood education around parenting – that America is a good parent, that we take care of our children because they are our children, and that people who don’t want to take care of America’s children are deadbeats.
We Can Do Better
Returning to the words he spoke to us at a ceremony for 20 murdered kids, Obama didn’t speak about our children’s welfare as if it were a math problem. He asked us to consider whether “we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose.”
Then in his State of the Union, Obama returned to the memory of the slain children in calling for restrictions on weapons that are all too frequently used to kill them. This has been widely regarded as the “smash finish” of his address that may eventually lead to real action on gun control.
That we can be swept up into action about dead children but speak with such dry calculation about living ones is more than disappointing – it is testament to the shriveled, rotten heart of a country that can’t seem to care for its children.
Yes, “we can do better.”