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