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A Case For Universal Pre-K

Written by Kate Maclean

Photography by Sara Brawner, Photographed By Tarin Frantz

In a country that leads the world in such superlatives as power, obesity, incarceration rates, and childbirth costs, it should come as no surprise that the United States comes 14th overall in education, and 26th in pre-kindergarten education. It has been historically impossible for parents to convey the importance of free education to unhearing politicians. Primary education has been compulsory (and thus free) in states as early as 1852 (Massachusetts being the first state to enact such a law). Now, all states have varying statutes that mandate compulsory education for children between 6-16 with myriad exceptions (homeschooling and Amish children older than 12 being two examples). But, as a country, the United States leaves its kids under six and over 18 to the fates of their parent’s income.

The push for universal pre-k has been a slow, steady, currently broadly-supported idea that enjoys a 70% approval rating. For reference, Obamacare gets 55%, and gay marriage gets 62% according to Gallup. But, universal pre-k means using public funds (taxes) to pay for more education, and the idea is mostly supported by democrats and non-whites. The demographic of those in power currently are neither.

The new compelling research out of Duke on pre-kindergarten effects concludes this: children who get access to one to two years of schooling before entering kindergarten are better prepared for primary school, and will eventually outperform their non-pre-k attending counterparts. Their learning is primarily play-based at this age with a loose attention to the academic (think alphabet and numbers). Because preschool costs money—and a lot of it—most of these outperforming school children come from affluent, white, suburban families. The racial and economic disparity of the country is worsened before children even start kindergarten. These white, rich, and more educated children then go on to do better in primary school, then high school, resulting in good college admissions, leading to higher paying jobs, which fuels the insanity that is the wealth gap in this country.

The current administration, predictably, has no cohesive thought for universal pre-k, but if the president’s proposed budget is anything to go by, there will be decidedly less federal spending on education. They are instead intending massive cuts (to the tune of $10.6 billion). There are federal actions in place currently, from previous administrations like Head Start, that serves the poorest of our children and gives them (among other things) free access to pre-k. Head Start only serves a fraction of the preschool-aged population. The remaining children, and their parents, need to look towards the states and cities they live in to provide this access.

There are various experiments in universal pre-k all over the country, from infamously unsuccessful ones like in Tennessee, to widely well-received state programs for low income four-year-olds in North Carolina, and for all four-year-olds in West Virginia. Perhaps the hottest new program, however, is in New York City driven by Mayor Bill DeBlasio. It has been so successful that the rest of the state is now clamoring to follow suit. In New York City, studies have found there are even unanticipated benefits to enrolling your child in pre-k programs, like healthier students. One study found that children who have poor sight or hearing and enroll in school earlier are more likely to be diagnosed earlier, and thus have access to more effective interventions.

Detractors of universal pre-k argue that children are too young to learn, and that universal programs would become babysitting services. The aforementioned Tennessee study showed—to the state’s great horror—that children who attended pre-k programs actually started underperforming their peers by the third grade. The state found that the quality of their pre-k programs was difficult to monitor, and thus was disintegrating, doing a disservice to the children in its care.

Still other detractors are disturbed by the socialist approach to providing the service for all. New York mayor Bill DeBlasio has come up against this complaint many times, but he told the Atlantic, “Anything that has a broad constituency will also have more sustainability.” It’s a practical—if disheartening—approach: provide the poor with a service and it’s likely to be taken away. Give the poor and the rich a service, and the latter will fight (with their excess time, money, and power) to keep it.

No matter your stance, the world rankings speak for themselves. Among OECD countries, the United States ranks 26th in preschool participation for four-year-olds, 24th in participation for three-year-olds, and 21st in total investment of early education relative to country wealth. China and India (who aren’t even members of the OECD) have aggressive goals for expanding their pre-k programs, and they will dwarf our participation by 2020 (with China providing pre-k access to an additional 40 million kids, and India providing it to an additional 20 million). Providing universal pre-k access to its citizens is not a liberal or conservative idea; it’s an economic one, and it’s one that the United States will rue having forgotten as it continues to slip in the rankings of education, and thus economic might.

There are a myriad of reasons to providing universal pre-k: from the surprising, but logical health benefits to the economic betterment of our country and our students, to the economic and racial desegregation of our classrooms. In a country that provides only 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave, we are abandoning our parents and their children from the age of three months to five years. This is a time that is immensely difficult to fill with expensive, and often patchwork childcare. It becomes a burden on the parents, but more importantly, it cleaves deeper the already unjust divide between the children of the wealthy and the poor.

There aren’t nearly enough groups advocating for children’s educational rights in Washington, but there are a few good ones. Speak up for your kids, and get involved through good non-partisan organizations like Every Child Matters and Promise the Children. Wouldn’t the country be a better place if we were known not for our military might, but for our universally well-educated children?

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