The Politics of ‘Pre-K’

Less than half of all 3- and 4-year-olds across the country are enrolled in any sort of early education, largely because of how pricey these programs can be. That’s a shame, advocates argue, considering the research showing the positive, long-term impact a quality early-education experience can have on a child’s life—all the more so if that child comes from a low-income family. In particular, these advocates want every child to have the opportunity to attend prekindergarten.

Therein lies a significant, though nuanced, distinction, says Larry Cuban, a former high school teacher and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University who recently wrote a book about classroom reform in the United States.

“Pre-k” and “preschool” are often used interchangeably in education circles and by the news media. (Even I, admittedly, have treated the words as synonyms.) After all, the two can mean the same thing: schooling that happens prior to kindergarten. But rarely do politicians who’ve declared early education a top priority say they want to expand access to preschool. It’s all about the single year that precedes kindergarten: pre-k.

That lexical distinction reveals how politicized early education is, Cuban says. It also highlights the growing emphasis placed on the quality and accountability of early education programs and the widespread belief that access to early learning should be a basic government function—something to which every child is entitled. And this is deliberate.

“When I am governor, there will be universal pre-k for all children,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who lost her Democratic bid for governor this year, on the night of the primary election. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who will soon take office as Pennsylvania’s next governor, touted the need for universal pre-k throughout his campaign and listed it as a goal on his election website. As did Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown, who lost.

And it wasn’t just the Democrats. Rick Snyder and Greg Abbot, both of whom won their Republican bids for governor, highlighted their support for pre-k in Michigan and Texas, respectively. (Their Democratic opponents did, too.)

In edu-speak, pre-k typically refers to a specific category of early learning that focuses on ensuring kids are prepared for kindergarten. The premise is that a child’s readiness for kindergarten can put that student significantly ahead of one who isn’t ready. This is what causes the achievement gap, and that gap only widens over time.

Pre-k programs are often funded by the government and, at least theoretically, entail high standards: qualified teachers with bachelor’s degrees, small class sizes, low teacher-student ratios, family support services, and nutrition requirements, among others. Many of them are operated in conjunction with public school districts. The federal Head Start program, which contracts with private agencies to provide early education and social services for low-income families, is another example of pre-k.

A number of states offer universal pre-k, pre-k for all 4-year-olds, while most target it at specific populations. (Nine states lack any form of state-funded pre-k.) A few states have as many as three-fourths of their 4-year-olds participating in government-funded pre-k, including Oklahoma, Florida, and Vermont. But nationally, just a small fraction of 4-year-olds participate in those kinds of programs: 28 percent, according to 2012-13 data from the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER.

The push for pre-k traces back decades, though the movement has undergone a revival in recent years. In his state of the union speech last year, President Barack Obama pledged to develop a federal $75 billion universal pre-k program that would involve partnering with the states, though the initiative has made little progress. Meanwhile, governors and state policymakers across the country have campaigned for expanding access to early education.

And other sectors have joined the cause, too, including business leaders and big-box corporations that say pre-k is key to developing a skilled workforce and stimulating the country’s economy. Moreover, pre-k is seen as an economic investment because it’s believed to reduce the chances a kid will drop out of school, get arrested, and rely on social services, as well as significantly increase that person’s earning potential.