President Obama made a big call for a federal – state partnership on early-childhood education in his State of the Union speech. As education initiatives go, pre-K has substantial research behind it. The mixed results that are observed in many pre-K initiatives, and Head Start, owe more to execution shortcomings than the underlying value of quality pre-K education. And it’s also common- sense that preparing students for school, and closing the gaps that exist before they start school, is a smart way to get kids off to a good start in school. The issue is also ripe for a federal-state partnership.
Still, it’s a long way from here to there. Doesn’t mean the President can’t get something done, but here are four reasons the President’s pre-K initiative faces a tough ride in Congress:
1) It’s expensive. Delivering high-quality pre-K is an investment that pays off in the future – but it’s one that Washington has to pay for now. That’s a tall order in today’s fiscal climate, gives opponents an easy way out (“it’s important, but we can’t afford it”), and redirecting the funds from existing programs such as Head Start creates substantial opposition. The President didn’t outline how this would be paid for.
2) The early-childhood education community is rarely accused of effectiveness. In many ways early-childhood advocates are their own worst enemies. “They eat their own,” one observer told me today while discussing the President’s proposals. That’s true, despite all the obstacles they have to overcome together, advocates have traditionally had trouble getting on the same page. Splintered support is a liability.
3) There is no center to hold. The basic battle lines are people who think expanding access to pre-K is paramount and those who think improving quality in pre-K is. Underneath the posturing the quality and access caucus is pretty small. That’s thwarted pre-K initiatives in the past and the President has his work cut out for him to change those politics.
4) It’s a hell of an issue. Pre-K enjoys wide-support among the American people. In the through-the-looking-glass world of Washington that can be a liability as much as an asset because politicians sometimes, ‘want the issue.’ With tough midterm elections on the horizon some politicians in Washington who support pre-K might not support it too fast because it’s political gold in a campaign. Wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened on an education issue.