Political Animal


February 13, 2013 10:20 AM SOTU Policy Stuff: Back to Universal Pre-K!

By Ed Kilgore

At various points during the day and week, I’ll probably do posts discussing some policy issues that the president raised in the State of the Union Address that deserve more attention that they are getting.

Obama’s call for a sorta-kinda commitment to universal pre-kindergarten educational opportunity was, as I noted in the last post, a real blast from the progressive past. As Sara Mead explained at her Education Week blog, it was a departure from his first-term strategy on early childhood education:

The President’s apparent embrace of universal pre-k as a goal marks a shift from his first term early childhood agenda, which was much more focused on improving childcare quality along the birth to 5 continuum. Over the past decade, there’s been a bit of a split in early childhood between advocates of universal pre-k programs designed to prepare 3- and 4-year-olds for school, and advocates who focused on improving childcare and intervention supports for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers (particularly the most disadvantaged) without a specific emphasis on pre-k. In the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton came down on the pre-k side of that divide and Barack Obama on the birth-to-five side—and that approach was largely reflected in the President’s first term, with the signature Early Learning Challenge Grant program, inclusion of Nurse Home Visiting in the Affordable Care Act, and expansion of Early Head Start. Tonight’s speech seems towards an emphasis on pre-k. If that’s correct, what changed?
On the other hand, given that tonight’s speech focused primarily on early childhood, higher education, and high school reform with no mention of waivers, teacher effectiveness, school turnaround, Common Core, or other K-12 reform issues that were central to the first term Obama education reform agenda, maybe that’s not surprising after all.

Well, Obama did give a shout-out to Race to the Top and credited it with convincing states to raise standards. But Sara’s right, the president’s education messaging is in significant flux, particularly as contrasted with the GOP’s growing consensus on “backpack vouchers” (you know, strap the federal funds on the kid’s back and let them follow him or her right into that conservative evangelical madrassa if that’s what mom and dad and Pastor Bob think best) as the answer to every education policy question.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on February 13, 2013 10:29 AM:

    President Obama could get that program passed by Republicans in a nano-second, if he let the program be run by private Christian firms who would teach the lil’ chillen’s the Bible, startin’ at Adam and Eve (NOT Steve!), and finishing with Jesus and how he wrote the “Sermon on the Mounting Debt” and the US Constitution (to give ‘em a head start on High School)!

    And all of that begatting will be covered by Cabbage Patch Kids and stuffed storks.

  • Mimikatz on February 13, 2013 11:26 AM:

    The best solution would be universal but not mandatory pre-K. It would be available free like K-12, but would not be mandatory, so stay-at-home Moms could home school, rich people could use the nanny, and the kids who really need it would have it available, much better than child care and as I said free like school. Too many kids come to school really unready for learning. Plus, school can provide an oasis if the family has too many problems. Federal dollars could go to school districts with adequate programs, bypassing the Jindals of the world.

  • mb on February 13, 2013 11:59 AM:

    When I heard the President on this issue, I couldn't help being reminded of the perennial promise to "fully fund Head Start." It seems politicians have finally gotten too embarrassed to continue that promise -- or maybe just forgotten it? Regardless, I'm weary of speeches promising new and improved educational initiatives. Wake me up when something other than some version of privatizing education actually has a chance of being enacted.

  • wihntr on February 13, 2013 1:00 PM:

    I am a big supporter of pre-K programming, but I am also a school board member here in Wisconsin. As much as I would love to see our schools in a position to offer for free the sort of programming from newborn on for which parents are currently paying hundreds a week, I could not in good conscience agree to it unless it were fully funded by the state, the feds or both. We are having a hell of a time right now providing a good education to the kids we have (4K-12th grade) with the funds we can raise. To offer to take on several hundred more kids-- along with the commitment to facilities and quality staff they would need-- would mean an enormous increase in our budget. And we do not have the ability to raise the revenues needed for that without passing a referendum-- in addition to the referendum under which we are operating right now!

    Like I said, great idea, but only if the funding is there.

  • MikeW on February 13, 2013 1:36 PM:

    What 'wihntr' said ... My daughter is in pre-school and it's awesome, but here in WA we can't even fund all-day kindergarten.