(Updated: May 7, 2014, 4:15 p.m.)
While Education Secretary Arne Duncan was testifying before both the House and Senate education committees last week, another less public event was happening in his agency. Representatives from the six states that won the last round of Early Learning Challenge grants convened for a workshop on how to promote early learning in their states.
Stephanie Blank, the founding chair of the governing board of Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, was there. She has played a key role helping Georgia's Gov. Nathan Deal run the state's universal pre-K system. Georgia was the first state in the country to extend free pre-K to all four-year-olds, way back in 1994. The program is funded through the Georgia Lottery. (See the story in National Journal's Next America that delves into the state's program in greater detail.)
Blank said the workshop leaders in Washington gave the participants an interesting exercise—name 10 people or entities in their states that are either negative or neutral on early learning. The point of the exercise was to figure out who to target with advocacy or lobbying. She said her group couldn't come up with anyone who is negative on early learning in Georgia, "a nice problem to have." She acknowledged that there are "neutral" parties in Georgia who generally don't think of early learning as a high priority.
Of course, saying you're opposed to early learning is like saying you're opposed to kittens and fresh air. The negativities about early education crop up when the programs become more defined. There are people who think early learning should happen at home rather than in an institutional setting. There are people who think pre-K is just free babysitting. (I heard one parent in my district refer to it as "free-K.") There are people who say government has too much on its plate already to take on yet another year of a child's public schooling.
Even the people who wholeheartedly support public pre-K as a concept don't necessarily agree on how the government should provide it. Should a free pre-K program be offered only to people with lower incomes? Or should it be offered to everyone? Blank is in the latter camp, arguing that open-access pre-K helps disadvantaged families more than targeted pre-K because their children are in classes with kids who are more privileged and probably have a better vocabulary, among other things. That's good for both sets of children.
President Obama takes an incremental approach on the question of universality versus low-income only. His FY 2015 budget request seeks $75 billion over 10 years in mandatory funding for "universal access to pre-K for four-year olds from low-to moderate-income families." The $75 billion is a pipe dream, but the idea about starting with the lower income families and moving up shows that the administration wants to direct assistance to the neediest families first.
Lawmakers had a lot to complain about last week in terms of the administration's education budget, but pre-K wasn't necessarily one of them. (For a good overview of those hearings, see Education Week's write-up of them here and here.)
It may be hard to find money for early education, but nobody seems willing to say it's a bad idea.
For our insiders: Who are the true opponents to pre-K, and what are their arguments? What are the barriers to providing public pre-K? Should pre-K be offered to everyone or should it be targeted to disadvantaged families first? Is it appropriate for the government to provide pre-K? Or should pre-K fall under "day care," which is the responsibility of families?
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