Biden’s pre-K plan is a bipartisan opportunity to serve the nation’s children

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Democrats and Republicans agree on the importance of high-quality early childhood education. It makes children’s lives better, supports low and moderate-income families and is a wise investment in the future. But too often, early childhood education is pushed to the bottom of the to-do list in favor of seemingly more urgent topics.

Politicians who are truly interested in policies that work for all Americans should come together now to translate the Biden administration’s proposals to support families into bipartisan legislation, including the proposed historic new investment of $200 billion for universal pre-K. As the pandemic has demonstrated, we can’t afford to allow the best interests of our nation’s children get lost in the fight to score political points. We must build off the momentum of this groundbreaking proposal and provide states with funding to increase enrollment and quality for the children currently least likely to attend high-quality pre-K.

While universal access to early learning often has been viewed as a pie in the sky goal, the proposal in reality is fiscally conservative. Over 10 years, $200 billion is less than one tenth of one percent of today’s GDP. With economic growth, it will be considerably less 10 years from now. Moreover, it is an investment with long-term economic payoffs as well as immediate benefits for children and families. Whether you believe as I do that this investment can fully pay for itself, or not, it can improve the lives of children and families with minimal impact on the federal budget.

With that in mind, we must also remember that pre-K already has bipartisan support outside the beltway, including in Republican-led states. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia fund pre-K programs. D.C., Florida, Georgia, Iowa, New York, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have some form of universal pre-K. Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey (R) and New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy (D) are both strong pre-K supporters who have prioritized it throughout the pandemic. But while there is wide recognition that pre-K is essential, the political will to pay for it continues to be far from commonplace. Meanwhile, unequal access to high-quality preschool education that existed long before the pandemic has reached incredible extremes.

New research shows that many states miss the mark and offer young children too little too late. This jeopardizes program effectiveness and students’ chances at success. State pre-K programs often offer just a few hours a week, not even a full school day. Quality standards are highly variable, with some of the largest states — California, Florida and Texas — having weak standards. Spending per child is not just irregular, but far too low in most states and few states require pay parity for pre-K teachers with their K-12 counterparts. On average, funding for state pre-K today is about half the $12,500 per child per year needed for an effective program.

Despite a declared goal of the federal Head Start program and most state programs to target children in poverty, children in low-income families still have the least access to pre-K. Less than half of American three and four-year-olds in families with annual incomes below $20,000 enroll in preschool classrooms. These are the children who are experiencing the impact of the pandemic the most severely and who will benefit from this proposal the most. We must step in with robust investments to help remedy the impact of inconsistent access.

A new federal partnership to share the costs with states would make high-quality, effective, publicly funded pre-K affordable for every community across the country. This is necessary because high-quality, productive preschool education is complex and expensive. That is why parents, communities and states have so much difficulty affording it while teachers are rarely paid a living wage. Effective programs require small class sizes with highly educated, well-paid teachers who receive strong support to meet the specialized needs of the children as these vary from child to child and community to community. To address any concerns on overreach from the federal government, the Biden administration’s proposed pre-K plan can be designed to support equal access to such programs within and across states while respecting state and local autonomy.

Biden’s proposal for universal pre-K is an outreached hand for a bipartisan approach to fix these problems, but there is much more to be done at the federal level to fill in and expand upon the details. New legislation sponsored by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) is a strong first step. Republicans should join them — the citizens in the states, cities, towns and rural areas they represent have just as much to gain as those represented by Democrats. Our children and the nation have too much to lose if we waste this moment. This may be the best opportunity in a lifetime to improve the education of children in America, as well as our economy.

Steven Barnett, Ph.D., is a Board of Governors professor and codirector of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Tags Biden Bobby Scott Early childhood education Education Educational stages Kay Ivey Patty Murray Political positions of Joe Biden Pre-kindergarten preschool Presidency of Joe Biden Universal preschool

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