Why Don’t More School Choice Supporters Support Pre-K?

At the risk of getting all Carrie Bradshaw on you: I couldn’t help wondering why more folks who support increased choice in K-12 education–whether through charters, as I do, or vouchers–aren’t more bullish about publicly funded pre-k.

Why? As states across the country have built pre-k systems over the past decade, by and large they’ve done so using diverse delivery models that incorporate community-based providers, Head Start, and other non-public school providers, along with school districts, into their publicly funded pre-k systems. To be sure, there’s variation among states in the extent to which non-district providers are delivering pre-k, but in some states, such as Georgia, Florida, and New Jersey, they account for the majority of slots. In other words, publicly funded pre-k systems across the country look a lot more like the type of diverse delivery system that supporters of increased school choice (whether through charters, vouchers, or a combination thereof) would like to see in the K-12 system. Pre-k programs like New Jersey‘s Abbott pre-k demonstrate that community providers can do just as good a job as the public schools in delivering high-quality educational services to young children.

Moreover, unlike in K-12, this inclusion of non-school district providers in state pre-k systems is widely accepted, and evokes none of the controversy that accompanies charters or private school choice in K-12 land. Heck, it’s the more lefty folks, they type of folks who are traditionally wary of charters and vouchers, who are most likely to be adamant about the need to include community-based providers in publicly funded pre-k systems (and sometimes it’s the conservative folks arguing against including community providers–sometimes early childhood policy can seem a bit like a Bizarro World version of K-12).

All that leads me to think that it would be smart for folks who support more choice in K-12 public education to be promoting pre-k as a foot in the door and proof point in the case for much greater diversity of delivery in the K-12 system, too. In particular, they should be supporting universal pre-k, which would much more clearly than targeted programs establish diverse delivery pre-k systems as part of the state’s system of public education for all kids–and the precedent that diverse provision of public education for little kids is totally cool and therefore shouldn’t be nearly so controversial in K-12, either.

But as far as I can tell, it ain’t happening. To be sure, a lot of charter school supporters, particularly those of a progressive bent (there are lots!), also support publicly funded pre-k programs. And a growing number of charter schools are actually becoming pre-k providers themselves, where state policies permit it and provide sufficient funding to deliver high-quality programs. But I don’t know of many efforts to explicitly link those two agendas.

And I don’t hear a lot of voucher proponents supporting publicly funded pre-k or citing it in their arguments for vouchers. In fact, some of the folks who are the biggest voucher advocates also tend to be pretty intense critics of pre-k.

I can think of a few reasons for this: First, some voucher proponents really aren’t convinced of the evidence for the value of pre-k–although I’d say it stands up any day against the evidence for vouchers. Second, many voucher proponents generally support a reduced government role in education, and see publicly funded pre-k as creeping government control. Finally (and this is my most cynical hat on), some voucher supporters really want to cut taxes and government spending, including spending on education and poor kids, and therefore view public pre-k as anathema because it costs money.

Obviously, I’m not going to convince folks in the second and third camps–those are deep-seated ideological issues–though I do think people in the first camp can be won over, particularly as the research base on effective state pre-k program’s, like New Jersey’s Abbott program and Oklahoma’s universal pre-k, grows.

But I do think people who sincerely believe in expanding educational choice because they care about providing more opportunities for poor kids should let down their assumptions for a moment and try to think about the potential of public pre-k programs to 1) help the kids they claim to be advocating for and 2) help them redefine public education not as “schools run by districts” but as “a diverse array of education providers who serve kids, using public funds, consistent with open access to all and common, high-quality standards across all providers.” That’s what good diverse delivery pre-k systems are, and it’s what good diverse delivery systems in K-12 could be, too.

–by Sara Mead

11 Replies to “Why Don’t More School Choice Supporters Support Pre-K?”

  1. Most of the public dollars available for Pre-K schooling is for poor minority children. The charter people who really get the importance of Pre-K have Pre-K glommed onto their elementary schools (Harlem Children’s Zone, et. al.).

    My cynical theory: the school choice people are mostly self-interested ideologues and the real reason they want vouchers so that they don’t pay tuition for their child and pay taxes to fund public education.

  2. What gave you the idea that voucher proponents care about poor kids? That has never been their agenda. Their goal is to destroy public education in favor of either a corporate controlled system or a parochial one.

  3. Topher, here’s my voucher agenda:

    Per Unckel, Governor of Stockholm and former Minister of Education, summarizes the advantages of Swedish system “Education is so important that you can’t just leave it to one producer. Because we know from monopoly systems that they do not fulfill all wishes”

    from wikipedia’s entry on Sweden’s education system

  4. I’m not taking a position about the idea of vouchers. I suppose there is a system that could make sense. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people who advocate for vouchers in the United States are not interested in improving educational outcomes. They are only interested in pushing social agendas and creating new opportunities for corporate American to make money, while cutting government spending and hurting traditional liberal advocacy groups.

    If you want more choice, I think Charter Schools are a more logical choice, but I confess that I don’t know much about the Swedish system, so I am not going to attack it.

  5. Public education today embraces customization, and Florida is lucky to have a vibrant array of publicly funded learning options that include pre-kindergarten. Ms. Mead can find widespread support of this from Florida’s choice movement, particularly from the organization I represent, which administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students. The Florida Legislature created the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program in 2004, and today it is the largest and most successful voucher program in our state. Our only criticism is that it isn’t means-tested.

  6. A lot of people who support vouchers are also people who believe parents should be raising children in the early years, not the state.

    The good evidence that exists for the benefits for preK education is for high-quality preK education–bad programs may do more harm than good. The vast majority of American preK programs are of mediocre quality. It would pay off, but it would take an enormous investment to offer high-quality universal preK. It remains to be seen whether America is willing to back that.

  7. I really don’t understand the ease in accepting such problematic policy options as vouchers, tuition tax credits, and charter schools.

    We can see very clearly, ESPECIALLY (but not limited to) in Cleveland and DC that voucher systems are not really held to the people they are meant to serve.

    Tuition tax credits are the same. Florida and Arizona’s programs are inequitable. Who gets served from these programs? Students who don’t need the tax credits. These tax credits are showing to, like vouchers, primarily fund students who are ALREADY enrolled in private education. Not only that but think about what a tax-credit is. Who qualifies for one? Only people (or businesses) who make over a certain amount of money–money that by the way no longer goes towards public education.

    And then there are charter schools. I still just don’t see how pre-K choice should tie to K-12 school choice. Free market reform has no place in the public institution of education. If we turn schools into competitive entities who are the winners and losers? Children are. If we frame anything in terms of a competition, winners and losers are part of the outcome. I take issue with the notion that it’s ok to expect and set up “losers” as outcomes. Even without this, we have yet to see charter systems that actually address racial and class desegregation and integration. Choice, more and more, is becoming another word for segregation…it’s just easier to hear.

  8. Vouchers are the way to go if we are to provide every child with the opportunity to aquire the education that best meets the needs of the individual child. The D.C. Civil Rights Act for Equal Educational Opportunity, proposed by Alliance for Free Choice in Education, will provide this for the chidren of the District of Columbia and save taxpayers billions. Please urge your Congressman to sponsor this bill.

  9. Justin,
    There are some significant differences between the tuition tax credit program in Florida and the program in Arizona, particularly as it concerns eligibility. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is entirely means-tested; the only students who are eligible are those whose household income qualifies them for a free or redueced-price lunch. Arizona’s program is open to any student, no matter the household income.

    Moreover, the average student in Florida’s program comes from a household whose income is 20 percent above the federal poverty line. The standard for free or reduced-price lunch in public schools is 185 percent of poverty.

    You can read more about the laws that regulate our program and current legislation up for debate by visiting our legislative page, http://www.stepupforstudents.org/press_kit.php

  10. Last weekend I attended a scientific symposium that presented a study on early childhood (0 to 5) that was supported in three separate populations. The research was able to determine that a $3,000 supplement to households earning less than $25,000 a year made a difference in (1) educational outcome, (2) health to nearly age 40, and (3) productivity in hours worked as well as earnings of about 17%. The presumed advantage was a lowering of stress in the family unit that otherwise result in epigenetic changes to physiology in the child.

    There appears to be ample evidence to support multiple non-school based interventions in order to save money on healthcare and improve productivity.

    In addition to this, our of wedlock childbirth and arrest record did not appear to correlate. This supports my inclination to talk in terms of class differentials in American education. Please note that I am saying strategies that separate children by income group are not desirable.

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