In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama once again emphasized the importance of early childhood education, including pre-kindergarten. Obama has made early childhood investment a priority since he first ran for president. But this year, his proposal may have a better shot at gaining support among Republicans eager to appeal to women voters.
“Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education,” Obama said last Tuesday, before reiterating his request that Congress approve funding to make high-quality pre-k available to every four year old in America.
Obama also announced that while he waits for Congress to act, his administration will “invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children,” echoing his efforts to speed quality improvements in K-12 education. And the president plans to convene business leaders, philanthropists and elected officials to discuss the best ways to move forward on expanding access to pre-k programs.
The president got several things right. The first is that the benefits of early education are beyond dispute. Researchers such as Nobel Laureate James Heckman have amply demonstrated that investments in early education offer a high rate of return by raising long-term skill levels and reducing costs associated with fighting crime and poverty. Investing in kids today can be an important step in boosting lifetime success and narrowing economic inequality.
Obama is also right to emphasize “high-quality” pre-k. Not every preschool program is high-quality, and trying to find one that is can be a real dilemma for parents. Furthermore, replicating high-quality programs is extremely difficult. With thousands of different operators providing preschool services, many great programs exist, but they can’t be instantly recreated elsewhere.
Greater effort is needed to identify high-quality early childhood education providers and educate parents about what to look for in a good childcare center. States and private providers, which have decades of experience studying and running preschool programs, should serve as valuable partners.
Finally, bringing together businesses, philanthropists and elected officials to work on expanding access to pre-k is a great way to tap into the expertise and commitment that exist across the early childhood landscape.
Many businesses now offer onsite childcare. Their motivation isn’t necessarily altruistic – after all, they want to attract and retain talented professionals who also happen to be parents – but the results is that more parents are able to find good childcare programs for their kids. By providing this service to employees, businesses have more expertise in expanding access to early childhood education than might be immediately apparent.
Another benefit to involving business leaders in discussions about expanding pre-k access is that doing so could make it more attractive for Republicans to get on board.
While the president has moved forward aggressively to remake
Head Start and launch Early Learning Challenge Grants to incentivize states to
invest in higher-quality preschool, Republicans have been reluctant to provide
funding for government-sponsored early education programs. Finding ways to
encourage private employers to offer on-site early childhood education or offering
greater tax breaks for working families to access high-quality programs at a
childcare center of their choice could convince Republicans to back funding for
early childhood initiatives.
[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]
Politicians of all stripes have one big reason to get on board with early childhood education: Voters – particularly women – support it. As an election nears, both parties will be seeking ways to woo women voters, with Republicans eager to chip away at the gender gap. Expanding access to early childhood education through the use of tax incentives, parental choice and involvement from the business community could be an opportunity for Republicans to adhere to their principles while also backing an Obama proposal that has strong support among women.
The president’s goal of expanding access to early childhood education is commendable. With a broad coalition of businesses and other private-sector organizations providing input, and this year’s elections motivating both sides to score some key victories for working families, his goal could also be achievable.