Opinion

Beyond the sequester: The merits – and flaws – of Obama's preschool plan

Sequester cuts will stymie President Obama’s early childhood education agenda for the foreseeable future, but expanding preschool for low-income families is still an idea whose time has come. And there are several aspects of the president's preschool plan to applaud.

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    President Obama plays a game with children in a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning center in Decatur, Georgia, Feb. 14. Op-ed contributor Russ Whitehurst writes: 'Good preschool programs can make up some of these gaps in experience and learning and thereby give children who would otherwise start – and stay – behind a fighting chance.'
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There’s been much hype about President Obama’s new plan to expand preschool in the US. But while the president’s selling of his preschool plan makes it sound like a new entitlement – taxpayer-funded preschool for all – the White House fact sheet on the policy makes it clear that the plan isn’t “universal” at all. Rather, the administration is proposing to work with states to fund expansion of taxpayer-funded pre-K for lower income families.

In fact, the Obama administration’s preschool plan is consistent with the federal role in education and human services since the Lyndon Johnson administration: targeted assistance for services to the economically disadvantaged. And this is a good thing.

Research shows that children from poor families start school substantially behind children from more advantaged backgrounds in vocabulary, knowledge of the world, social skills, and pre-academic content such as letter recognition, all of which are strongly predictive of later school success. These differences arise because well-educated parents typically spend many thousands more hours than their poorly educated, low-income counterparts in interactions with their young children that teach things that are important for school readiness.

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Good preschool programs can make up some of these gaps in experience and learning and thereby give children who would otherwise start – and stay – behind a fighting chance. In a 21st century global economy in which knowledge and skills are the passports to prosperity, it is important to our nation as a whole that all our children have a fair shot at a good education.

Of course, Mr. Obama’s initiative has come face to face with the reality of federal budget constraints, as the sequester – or across-the-board spending cuts – begins to take effect. Those cuts will stymie Obama’s early childhood education agenda for the foreseeable future, but expanding preschool for low-income families is still an idea whose time has come. Based on what the White House has released so far and some judicious reading between the lines, there are several aspects of the president's preschool plan to applaud.

Targeting. Research suggests a much greater return on public investment for pre-K programs targeted toward the disadvantaged as compared to universal programs. The administration proposes to provide funding to support program costs for children from families that are no more than 200 percent above the poverty line.

Data and assessment systems. Requiring states to collect information on quality, as the administration proposes, is the necessary first step in improving services. We have learned from rigorous research on K-12 public education that quality varies widely by classroom and school. For instance, variations in classroom quality in kindergarten are significantly related to college attendance rates and labor market earnings. We also have evidence of substantial variation in the quality of adult-child interactions in child-care settings.

Curriculum. Children’s pre-academic skills – including vocabulary, knowledge of the world, letter recognition, and phonemic awareness – are strongly associated with academic outcomes during elementary school. The administration’s commitment to linking federal funding to the requirement that preschool programs have a “rigorous curriculum” is important and evidence-based.

Curtains for Head Start (as we know it). A recently released high-quality federal study found that traditional Head Start programs serving 4-year-olds do not enhance the academic, social, or health outcomes of Head Start children as they progress through elementary school. This is a serious blow to an expensive federal program that has school readiness as its primary goal.

The sequester is expected to cut $400 million from the program this year. But my surmise is that, wherever possible, the administration intends to support the expansion of state pre-K programs for 4-year-olds at the expense of traditional Head Start. Good. States are better positioned than the federal government to provide a coherent preschool system.

Nothing is perfect – and certainly not the president’s preschool plan. There are several areas in which the administration has it wrong or has left out something very important.

Teacher credentials and pay. The president proposes that all states would staff their pre-K programs with “well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff.” We know that neither traditional teacher credentials nor teacher salaries have much to do with the quality of interactions in preschool classrooms.

Preschool teachers benefit from short-term training that focuses on specific skills, such as how to read a book to children. And just as is the case for K-12 teachers, the best predictor of pre-K teacher quality is how they actually perform in the classroom, not their degree or route into teaching.

Requiring states to credential and pay pre-K teachers as they credential and pay K-12 teachers assures only two things: high costs and supportive teacher unions.

Local school districts in charge. Under the administration’s plan, federal dollars “would be distributed to local school districts and other partner providers.” In far too many cases these would be the same school districts that are responsible for the terrible public schools that will fail to educate the very children the president’s preschool proposal is intended to benefit. We shouldn’t make the fox responsible for the hen house.

Choice. The administration’s plan is silent on whether and how parents will be able to exercise choice in where they send their child to pre-K. Parents need the right to send their child to the preschool they prefer rather than the preschool to which they are assigned.

Lack of integration with other federal funding streams. If the administration pushes for a new program to help states expand pre-K without addressing the need for a comprehensive reform of the existing total package of federal pre-K spending, a chance for real reform will have been lost.

The federal government funds many programs that are intended to improve the education of young children. Among the largest are Head Start, the Child Care and Development Fund, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. There is more than $20 billion in annual expenditure on early education through these uncoordinated programs.

Do no harm. Some children need publicly supported out-of-home care to be prepared for school and life. Some do not. It is important for policymakers, include those in the Obama administration, to be mindful that not every preschooler needs to be in an organized preschool setting to be ready for school and that there are risks for some young children in spending considerable time away from their parents in those settings.

If the Obama administration is willing to offer a preschool plan that keeps parents in the driver’s seat in terms of choosing where to send their child, puts states in charge of administering the program and provides them with general guidelines rather than detailed prescriptions, and redirects existing resources rather than calling for large new expenditures, there is a significant possibility of bipartisan support in Congress. This is an exciting time for preschool education.

Russ Whitehurst is senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the US Department of Education.

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