Former Indy mayor and policy innovator Stephen Goldsmith turns in an interesting paper on pre-K education. He asks the right question: Should we be seeking to create a pre-K system a pre-K solution? I’m certainly in the latter camp at the superficial level but as soon as you start thinking about standards, quality, and so forth the lines start to blur. And, to really create an effective pre-K solution is going to take resources, new ones and redirected ones. That’s not going to happen (nor would it be a good idea) without attention to quality. Goldsmith does seem to say, however, that debate about how to structure pre-K has not been happening. I don’t agree, it’s the thing you hear serious state and national players on this issue talking about all the time.
Yet Goldsmith seems most concerned that simply adding pre-K to our existing elementary and secondary system could cripple the network of pre-K providers that exists now because parents would naturally choose “free” public programs and he seems to want to keep this away from the public schools. As a matter of making policy, while there are plenty of reasons to embrace pluralism in the delivery of pre-K programs, protecting the network of current providers is not one of them. Rather, we should look at the direction we want to go and reverse engineer from there in terms of the mix of existing and new options and the service(s) we want them to deliver. In other words, the notion that the public schools should be axiomatically out of the mix makes little sense despite Robert Putnam’s concerns about kindergarten.
Sara Mead has laid out a bold proposal for a federal – state partnership to do basically this. It would combine federal resources with state and local flexibility to create the market of providers each state wants. Some ways to contain the costs but it’s expensive no matter how you slice it. But, perhaps the deal is market enthusiasts getting real choice in pre-K but accepting big new investments and public school advocates accepting choice but getting a real pre-K initiative.