As public support and awareness of the importance of preschool grows at the federal, state and local level, there is a debate in the early childhood education world over how to achieve “universal preschool” and what form it should take.
In San Francisco, “universal preschool” means access to free or reduced-cost slots in preschools for 4-year-olds based on family income. In New York City, it’s a new program that aims to give preschool seats to all 4-year-olds regardless of income. In Seattle, voters just approved a measure to raise taxes to subsidize slots for lower income 3- and 4-year-olds.
The term “universal preschool” means different things in different places and in politics, words matter. At issue is whether the “universal” in universal preschool means that taxpayers should underwrite preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, or just 4-year-olds, whether such programs should be full day or half day, and, most importantly, whether they should be offered to all children, or only to low-income children. Political messaging experts say the lack of a clear definition could be impeding efforts to advance a national universal program.
The battle over the meaning of the term was in full display earlier this year when some California legislators, led by then-Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg, pushed to expand the state’s new transitional kindergarten program under the banner of “universal preschool” to all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Currently only children whose 5th birthday falls between September and December are eligible to enroll in transitional kindergarten, which is effectively an extra year of school paid for by taxpayers.
But instead of expanding transitional kindergarten, others in the Legislature pushed to expand less costly full-day preschool programs – also in the name of universal preschool. This was the approach that was backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and which eventually won out.
“The two times in my life I’ve been most financially insecure, was when my kids were going to preschool and college,” said Bruce Lesley, president of DC-based First Focus. “The middle years you are socking away money.”
Early childhood education advocates want to see all children have access to high quality preschool, but they disagree on how to get there.
A universal preschool program that helped all children regardless of income would reduce the financial burden on the middle class, said Bruce Lesley, president of DC-based First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization that seeks to make children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions. He has worked on national efforts to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program and on health care reform.
“The two times in my life I’ve been most financially insecure, was when my kids were going to preschool and college,” he said. “The middle years you are socking away money.”
Others argue there is no need to subsidize affluent families who can already afford to pay for such programs. Research shows lower income children often gain the most from access to preschool.
“Why should we spend public money to help families in Orinda until we are darn sure every poor kid gets equal access,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley
A program for children based on financial need could be a starting point to eventually cover all preschoolers, Lesley said.
“Any advancement right now is something,” he said. “Even if we do something means-tested to begin with, we can make the point we are not reaching everyone and continue to have the conversation,” Lesley said.
When President Barack Obama called for universal preschool in his State of the Union address in February of 2013, he gave the phrase a national spotlight. But even he was vague about what exactly it meant.
Rather than providing preschool for all 4-year-olds, Obama has focused on expanding access to slots for 4-year-olds in families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, said Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the U.S. Department of Education.
Doggett said that universal preschool “has come to mean serving the children most in need first.” But Doggett, who began her career as a first-grade bilingual teacher, said, “I’d prefer we start there, not stop there.”
Doggett said helping those who need it the most is the priority at the federal level.
“I think every child benefits from preschool,” she said. “Obviously children who start off more behind because they haven’t had quite as much at home gain even more.”
In California, voters rejected the idea of taxing the wealthiest residents to pay for a program offering preschool to all 4-year-olds in 2006, an idea proposed in a ballot initiative by Rob Reiner, a movie director and producer who was then-chairman of the First 5 Commission.
California’s expansion of preschool earlier this year added more slots for children from low-income families. The state budget included $273 million for early learning and child development, including an additional 7,500 full-day, full-year preschool slots this year and 4,000 more next year. The budget bill pledged to add an additional 31,500 slots in upcoming years but does not guarantee funding. The plan will eventually cover half of California’s 4-year-olds.
Some of the biggest leaps in universal preschool have happened in “red” states. For example, Oklahoma and Georgia have been held up as national models for universal preschool programs for all 4-year-olds regardless of income. Advocates say the programs had voter appeal because they were not perceived as “welfare programs” based on financial need.
Doggett said pollsters don’t like the phrase “universal preschool” because voters associate it with the universal health care campaign, so she was advised to call the concept “voluntary preschool for all,” she said.
“I think every child benefits from preschool,” said Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the U.S. Department of Education. “Obviously children who start off more behind because they haven’t had quite as much at home gain even more.”
Although they disagree about other aspects, many advocates agree that “universal preschool” should mean full-day programs.
“For working families, a full-day, full-year program is essential and we advocate that every program be full-day, full-year for the families who need it,” said Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge, a preschool advocacy group in California.
Doggett said at the federal level, universal preschool means full-day slots.
“We recommend it and require it in the grant development,” she said.
When she envisions the future, Doggett says she thinks the U.S. will one day have preschool available for all 4-year-olds regardless of income.
“We as a country are missing out,” she said. “It’s a great way to improve our educational system. I think we should and we will provide preschool for at least every 4-year-old regardless of income at voluntary programs.”
While early childhood education advocates push to expand access, the lack of a clear direction could hurt efforts to advance universal preschool as a national movement, like health reform, Lesley said.
“People don’t even know what the term means,” said Lesley. “It makes it hard to figure out what the policy answer should be. It harms action. Even if you get to the point of, yeah, ‘we should expand pre-k,’ how we do it becomes a stumbling block. That’s a huge, huge problem.”
In general, there is growing public support for preschool and increasing awareness of its value, so the moment is ripe for moving forward with a national movement for universal preschool, Lesley said.
“People are accepting that we should do this,” he said. “We should have access to high quality pre-k. We are at that point in figuring out what that is. At this critical juncture, it’s important to crystalize what the options are.”
The success of any political movement hinges on first getting the language right and the policy down, Lesley said.
“Universal pre-k is a slogan,” said Fuller, the UC Berkeley professor. “It doesn’t help us to understand how to invest public dollars to build a fair society.”