Universal preschool programs have grown dramatically over the past 20 years, spanning red and blue states and a growing number of cities. Policymakers have been pushing for universal preschool based in part on the understanding that the public favors universal programs over those targeted to low-income families—an understanding drawn from areas of policy like Social Security but one that is only theory in the case of preschool. Now, new evidence shows that both are equally popular, and evidence-based preschool policy can take either approach based on community values and program costs.
Polling preferences for preschool
Public preschool programs currently serve 1.5 million children—their largest enrollment ever—with expenditures totaling $7.4 billion. But within the context of rapid preschool expansion, there is a debate about whether programs should be targeted to low-income students (and others deemed at risk) or universally available to all.
Proponents of targeting cite its efficient use of resources and capacity to address disparities that arise before kindergarten entry. Advocates of the universal approach tout benefits for all children and greater durability among programs that serve more, and more advantaged, families.
Eleven states, the District of Columbia, and cities like New York, Boston, Seattle, and San Antonio are working toward universal provision. Although their efforts have generated vastly different programs, the perceived political appeal of universalism has been influential: universal initiatives launched in rapid succession beginning in 1995, compared with targeted programs, which started largely in the 1960s through 1980s. Yet, no one has questioned whether that perceived political appeal is real.
To provide the first evidence on public preferences for government-funded preschool, I conducted a national survey through the nonpartisan polling organization YouGov and the Laboratory for the Study of American Values at Stanford University. I created the questions, and YouGov fielded the poll. Results were published recently in AERA Open.
The survey had surprising findings. Nationwide, Americans showed equal levels of support for targeted and universal preschool. About half of all respondents supported both forms of preschool, one-quarter opposed both, and one-quarter was ambivalent. The plurality of respondents showed no preference for one form or the other. These results counter the long-standing assumption that universal preschool policy is the obvious favorite.
Survey results suggest several causes and correlates of preferences for preschool. Support varied by standard demographic characteristics, but the most consistent and meaningful differences in public opinion reflect financial self-interest and personal values. The possibility of tax increases to generate program funding significantly decreases support for universal preschool but has no effect on support for targeted preschool. Self-identified Democrats, liberals, and people with strong egalitarian beliefs favor targeted preschool, whereas self-identified Republicans, conservatives, and people with weaker egalitarian beliefs favor the universal approach. These variations explain the overall lack of preference nationwide.
Which preschool policy is best?
Research shows that targeted and universal preschool programs get children off to a strong start, and it is difficult to tell whether one is better based on this design feature, alone (despite some recent evidence on the question). By definition, they serve different groups of children. And they have different histories and goals. But we now know that they do not necessarily differ in the realm of public opinion.
Public preferences for preschool vary across the country. My study cannot predict the consequences of reshaping preschool programs already in place. But it does show that there is appetite for targeted preschool. As many states and localities continue to expand their investments in preschool—and some debate implementing initiatives for the first time—policymakers should consider targeted and universal options, along with policy hybrids, and propose the one that best fits the needs of their communities.