Five ways to improve Obama's pre-k plan

President Obama’s plan for pre-K schooling is well intentioned: Greater access to preschool is necessary for American competitiveness. But “Preschool for All,” as the plan is known, needs vast improvement if it is to pass Congress.

Research shows that children from poor families start school substantially behind children from more advantaged backgrounds. They trail 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.

Good preschool programs can make up some of these gaps in experience and learning and thereby give children a fighting chance. In a 21st-century global economy, it is important that all American children have a fair shot at a good education.

But Preschool for All includes features that are neither justified by research nor contribute to the political prospects of the plan becoming law. To correct these flaws, the plan must make the following five adjustments.

1.Avoid overreach

President Obama plays a game with children in a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia, Feb. 13. (Jason Reed/Reuters/File)

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.

The nation has experienced unintended negative consequences of federal involvement in setting education policy, including cheating scandals associated with the testing and accountability of No Child Left Behind.

In Preschool for All, the federal government doles out $75 billion to states over 10 years. To access the funds, states have to submit an acceptable plan to make preschool accessible, without tuition, to all 4-year-olds from families with incomes no higher than 200 percent above the poverty line (about $39,000 for a household of two adults and one child).

The costs of preschool expansion would shift gradually from a predominantly federal share (paid for by a tax on cigarettes) to a predominantly state share. The program would be placed on the mandatory side of the budget along with entitlements such as Social Security.

It is one thing for the federal government to redistribute funds so states with lots of poor families get additional money to beef up their pre-K programs. It is another to tie a lot of strings to the money for how the programs will be delivered. States should be wary of this gift horse, and of a new federal entitlement for free pre-K for which they end up paying most of the costs after a few years.

Scratch teacher mandates

Under the plan, states have to commit to pre-K programs in which all teachers have a four-year college degree and are paid the same as K-12 teachers. But research demonstrates that neither traditional teacher credentials nor teacher salaries have much to do with the quality of classroom interactions – preschool or otherwise.

Preschool teachers benefit from short-term training that focuses on specific skills, such as how to read a book to children. As with K-12 teachers, the best predictor of pre-K teacher quality is how they perform in the classroom, not their degree. Requiring states to credential and pay pre-K teachers as they do K-12 teachers assures only two things: high costs and supportive teacher unions.

Eliminate school-district monopoly

Under the administration’s plan, school districts will be responsible for offering the pre-K program, either by themselves or in partnership with other providers. These would be the same school districts that in far too many cases are responsible for the terrible public schools that will fail to educate the very children the president’s proposal is intended to benefit.

We shouldn’t make the fox responsible for the henhouse; states should be encouraged to let the money follow the child to any program the state has determined to be of good quality.

Give parents choice

The plan is silent on parental choice in pre-K. Parents need the right to send their child to the preschool they prefer rather than the preschool to which they are assigned.

It seems that many flavors of preschool education that are embraced by affluent parents, including programs that focus on play and socioemotional development, and programs with religious content, would be off the table because of the funding structure. Vouchers can address this.

Eliminate overlap

The federal government spends more than $20 billion a year on a slew of programs intended to improve the education of young children, with the best known being Head Start – a program riddled with problems.

To this, the administration proposes to add another $7.5 billion for state pre-K. Pushing for a new program without addressing the need for comprehensive reform of the existing total package of federal pre-K spending represents a failure of will and vision. One solution might be to replace Head Start with Preschool for All.

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.