Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., wants to take on Pennsylvania's Republican incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett in next year's gubernatorial election, and one of the key parts of her policy platform is open access to pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds in the state. She is clear that not all schools would be required to offer it, and some of the access could come from existing day-care centers that are separate from the state public school system. She also knows that making any kind of universal pre-K happen is a heavy lift.
The main point, however, is that she thinks the voting public will get behind her on the concept that all families should be able to send their four-year-olds to school. "It pays dividends in dollars and cents later, not spent on remedial work, not spent on children dropping out. It's a smart thing to do. I always believe in looking at what works," Schwartz told me in an interview last week.
The research indicates that the earlier children are made "ready to learn," the easier it is for them to meet important education benchmarks later on. By third grade, kids who aren't on grade level in reading are going to have a tough time catching up. That means school districts are going to have to invest a lot in remedial education for those kids to (hopefully) get them up to speed. It makes sense that Schwartz is talking about nipping that problem in the bud.
Schwartz's proposal isn't unique. It is purposely written in the same mode as President Obama's proposal to expand pre-K to everyone, starting with four-year-olds in families at or below the 200 percent poverty level. The political twist in the story is that Schwartz is betting that her past experience in education advocacy will win her points with Pennsylvania's families. Education is her strong point, having led the Democrats on the state Legislature's Education Committee for 10 years, and she is making the most of it. Pre-K is an easy topic to seize on, and it's a safe bet that voters will remember it. She has other education campaign promises to make, for sure. She wants to rejigger the funding formulas for the state's schools such that there aren't massive disparities, for example. And she wants to encourage the state colleges to keep their tuition rates from going up.
But the education proposal that has the most staying power is her pre-K proposal. Everyone understands it in an instant. Heck, who doesn't like four-year-olds? The only question now is whether Schwartz's pre-K proposal will set her apart from the other potential Democratic challengers and let her take on Governor Corbett next fall.
Does it help the early education advocacy community when politicians like Schwartz use pre-K as a campaign promise? How does pre-K play as an issue among voters? Among educators? What challenges face a governor who wants all of the states' kids to go to pre-kindergarten? Should universal pre-K take priority over other early education concepts like full-day kindergarten? Can pre-K be separated from school districts such that it doesn't become an added burden?