It was exactly a month ago that President Obama proposed to dramatically expand access to preschool. A few days later, the White House followed up with a three-page plan. We are now enjoying a season of commentary and analysis that should stir healthy debate in our country about how to ensure that all families have the opportunity to enroll their children in preschool. Unfortunately, one of those commentaries – an editorial in the Wall Street Journal – has misled many people about the facts of the Obama Administration’s preschool plan by equating it with Head Start.
In a letter to the editor, I attempted correct the record. To their credit, the WSJ editors published the letter this week. Here’s what I wrote:
The editorial of Feb. 26 about President Obama's preschool proposal featured the headline "Head Start for All."But Mr. Obama's plan is not about expanding Head Start to more four-year-olds. In fact, the current proposal actually de-emphasizes Head Start for that age group. It favors states providing pre-K through partnerships with public schools and private providers.
Around the country, good preschools want to expand and improve. But opening high-quality classrooms requires recruiting trained teachers who are paid a decent wage. This economic reality leads many preschools to set tuition rates too high for low-to-middle-income families. As we've seen in states around the country, preschools are able to reach more children when they receive state funding. President Obama's plan would augment that funding with federal grants.
Instead of criticizing the proposal, shouldn't we be asking: What could the federal government be doing to empower states and localities to create and expand high-quality programs? Let's applaud a chance for state-run programs to help more families enroll their children in preschool.
In short, we need to recognize an important part of the Obama proposal: The ability to build on high-quality pre-K programs designed by states, enabling a more integrated system of high-quality PreK-12 learning for children regardless of their family’s financial resources. States have control over at least two critical levers for reform. They allocate resources to school districts and they are expected to set standards for learning and standards for teaching. They are key players in creating a more equitable system of public education. (And, by the way, they can and should do it with the help of Head Start, if the right partnerships and new efficiencies can be put into place.)
There are many valid debates to be had in the field of early childhood education.* Commentators and policymakers should be talking about which families should be a priority, how to sustain the gains made in good pre-K programs, how to improve the quality of classrooms and how to build a workforce of teachers well-versed in how young children learn best. And we should be digging deeply into the pros and cons of different methods for funding an expansion of preschool – especially once we finally see a price tag and other funding details that should come with the release of the President’s 2014 budget request next month.
But debates based on false information -- or, to be generous, misreadings -- about the current plan obfuscate the issue, making it increasingly difficult to have an honest discussion about new policies that could enable more children to succeed in school. If we continue at our current rate of progress, “it will take more than three decades to reach the point where even 50 percent of young children are reading proficiently at the end of third grade,” according to the 2012 Child Well-Being Index published by the Foundation for Child Development. (Disclosure: FCD is one of our funders.) Most developed countries are already well-ahead of the United States in making public investments in early care and education. We cannot afford to keep stalling.
* Speaking of good debates and important conversations, don’t miss the event at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute this Thursday March 14, Assessing the President’s Preschool Plan, featuring Sara Mead, associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners and former director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, and Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and former director of the Institute for Education Sciences. The Fordham Institute will webcast the event.