The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 27, 2015

The political future of public preschool

October 27, 2015

Preschool is often touted as a policy issue that transcends the red state-blue state divide. Its champions include New York City’s Democratic mayor, Bill De Blasio, Republican Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama, and former Governor of Georgia Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat. Its appeal has led to spending increases of $2.4 billion and a near doubling of enrollments over the last decade. Will public preschool become the bipartisan issue of the 2016 presidential election? Despite some recent polling to support the advocacy efforts of the First Five Years Fund, the answer is likely, ‘no.’ This is because preschool politics differ between the national and state levels.

State preschool policy looks bipartisan because it was made that way.

Public preschool programs have been built with support from across the political spectrum. Public preschool’s potential to reduce poverty and address inequality appeals to the left; economic analyses of high returns on investment and benefit-to-cost ratios appeal to the right; cost savings appeal to working families across the board. These lines of reasoning have led eight diverse states—Vermont, Florida, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Georgia, Iowa, and Texas—and the District of Columbia to create and expand state pre-kindergarten programs that now enroll the majority of their 4-year-olds. Mississippi, Indiana, Hawaii, and Montana also began new programs last year. These states may have moved forward on public preschool for different reasons, but they moved forward toward the same goal.

At the national level, however, public preschool is a political issue.

Although several Republican-led states have funded robust state pre-kindergarten programs, Republicans nationwide prefer preschool spending decreases to increases by a substantial margin. In 2013, while I was in graduate school, I conducted a national survey of preferences for government-funded preschool through YouGov and the Laboratory for the Study of American Values at Stanford University. I created the questions, and YouGov (a nonpartisan polling organization) fielded the poll. The survey found that one-third of Republicans want to decrease spending on public preschool, while just one in five Republicans prefer increased spending. By contrast, a solid majority of Democrats favor an increase in spending on public preschool, while only five percent want spending decreased.

Preschool spending preferences

Even universal preschool policies are political.

Interest in universal preschool—one type of public preschool open to all children regardless of family income or need—appears to be growing at national, state, and local levels. For example, a 2014 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans, including more than half of Republicans, support universal preschool. But universal preschool does not yet have a universal definition. Programs can serve all children in at least two ways: free participation for all, as in most large state programs, or open access for all, with tuition fees levied on a sliding scale based on family income (as in the Obama’s Administration’s Preschool for All plan and programs in Louisiana, San Francisco, and San Antonio).

In a second 2013 YouGov/Laboratory for the Study of American Values poll, I asked a nationally representative sample of respondents to choose between these two options for state-funded universal preschool. Results showed that Republicans and Democrats are equally in favor of free preschool for all, but Republicans’ support for a sliding scale version of universal preschool is just half the rate of support among Democrats.

Preschool program preferences

Preschool is not a red state-blue state issue; it’s a fed-state issue.

To understand the politics of preschool, consider the larger partisan debate over the federal role in education policy. While Democrats support an expanded federal role in public schooling, Republican leaders have advocated abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. Because some Republican leaders view public preschool as the purview of state and local governments, they have resisted its implementation by federal policymakers. The Common Core State Standards Initiative offers a recent parallel in K-12 education. As a state-led effort organized by the National Governors Association, the Common Core gained support from 42 states and the District of Columbia. When the Obama Administration sought to incentivize Common Core participation, however, the initiative was characterized as an example of federal overreach and several states withdrew their support. Similar politics may be at work for preschool policy, including President Obama’s Preschool for All.

To date, none of the Republican candidates for president has issued a preschool policy statement of any kind, but both of the leading Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have announced their intentions to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Preschool is already a partisan issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. Advocates and candidates alike would be wise to acknowledge that the future of public preschool depends on politics—and that efforts to expand access to high-quality early learning opportunities will be most successful when they consider differences in these politics at the national and state levels.

Pre-K students line up outside a classroom at the South Education Center, Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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