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Biden eyes universal pre-K plan, but potential challenges loom

President Joe Biden speaks after meeting with leaders from Georgia's Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, Friday, March 19, 2021, at Emory University in Atlanta, as Vice President Kamala Harris listens. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Joe Biden speaks after meeting with leaders from Georgia's Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, Friday, March 19, 2021, at Emory University in Atlanta, as Vice President Kamala Harris listens. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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As President Joe Biden prepares to pitch trillions in new spending to Americans, a plan to provide free universal preschool could revive debate about the role of the federal government in early childhood education and how best to approach expanding opportunities for families.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently approved by Congress was only part of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda. A multi-trillion-dollar recovery plan is expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks.

According to multiple media reports, the White House is eying $3 trillion in new federal investments in infrastructure and domestic programs. About $1 trillion of that would reportedly go toward traditional infrastructure projects like rebuilding roads, bridges, ports, and power grids, as well as expanding access to broadband.

Much of the rest of the funding would be dedicated to progressive domestic priorities like modernizing schools, clean energy, extending enhanced child tax credits, national paid leave, tuition-free community college, and universal prekindergarten. Biden was one of several Democratic presidential candidates who committed to pursuing universal pre-K, and he reiterated his support when he announced the nomination of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in December.

“We need to make sure every child will have access to high-quality universal pre-K,” Biden said at the time. “I’m not talking about day care. I’m talking about universal pre-K that is starting at age three, four.”

The White House stressed conversations about the recovery proposal are ongoing and nothing, including the price tag, is finalized. Officials are expected to brief Biden on his options this week, but top Republicans are already signaling resistance.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed a potential Democratic infrastructure proposal Monday as “a Trojan horse for massive tax hikes and other job-killing left-wing policies.”

The Washington Post reported the White House aims to fund the domestic programs in the plan by raising the top income tax rate from 37% to 39.6%, increasing taxes on investors, and limiting deductions for wealthy households. Savings generated for Medicare by driving down the cost of prescription drugs could also be directed to these programs.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, U.S. families spend about $42 billion a year on early childhood care and education, and parents forgo up to $35 billion in income by leaving the labor force to care for children. Public funding for prekindergarten could save parents of young children up to $20,000 per year, depending on local tuition costs.

“Early care and education is very expensive... A good preschool can cost as much as a state university or a community college,” said Judy Temple, an expert on early childhood policy at the University of Minnesota.

A poll released earlier this year by the First Five Years Fund showed 84% of Americans support free universal preschool for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, including 73% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats. Tax credits for child care, using federal funds to improve child care facilities, and offering better salaries and opportunities to early childhood educators were also backed by more than 80% of Americans.

As a candidate, Biden put forth a plan to expand access to child care that his campaign estimated would cost $775 billion over 10 years. That proposal included offering universal preschool to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, as well as a refundable tax credit to cover up to half of the cost of child care for low-income and middle-class families.

The campaign said Biden would work with states to offer high-quality pre-K to all to “ease the burden on our families, help close the achievement gap, promote the labor participation of parents who want to work, and lift our critical early childhood education workforce out of poverty.” It did not specify how that would actually work.

A 2013 Obama administration proposal would have established a cost-sharing partnership with states to expand access to public preschools for 4-year-olds from low-income families at or below 200% of the poverty level. It also included incentives for states to broaden participation in public preschools from middle-class families.

In 2016, the Congressional Budget Office estimated Obama’s Preschool for All plan for 4-year-olds would cost the federal government about $66 billion over 10 years. Assuming a similar program covering 3-year-olds as well, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projected the Biden campaign’s preschool proposal would cost about $150 billion over 10 years.

Much about Biden’s plan is unclear, including whether it would include provisions to subsidize private child care programs or focus entirely on expanding the capacity of public school prekindergarten classrooms. Experts say steps to maintain high standards and retain qualified teachers would also be critical to success.

“We’d want to have good, quality learning experiences,” Temple said. “We’d want to have highly trained professionals. We’ve seen significant issues with how early educators are paid.”

Access to public preschool currently varies widely by state and city, but most offer at least some form of publicly funded education for 4-year-olds. Only a handful of state and local governments have attempted to launch truly universal pre-K programs, and the results have been mixed.

Oklahoma has offered universal pre-K for 4-year-olds since 1998, and it has mandated standards for class size and teacher qualifications. Studies have found the program enhanced school readiness for children of various economic and racial backgrounds, but many of the state’s most vulnerable children remain unenrolled.

Voters in Florida backed universal pre-K in 2005, but the program has been persistently underfunded. Georgia tied funding for its public pre-K to state lottery revenue, which resulted in inconsistent funding, overcrowded classrooms, and underpaid teachers.

In places like San Antonio, Boston, and New York City, local governments have attempted to offer more expansive early childhood education options than the rest of their states. Phasing in such programs has often proven costly and complicated, but they have seen some positive results.

Washington, D.C. instituted an expansion of public prekindergarten for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in 2008, and by 2018, about 75% of the city’s 3-year-olds were enrolled in free preschool classrooms. The city uses federal Head Start funding to supplement local tax funds, and it ensures pre-K teachers are paid comparably to elementary school teachers.

In addition to improving K-12 student performance, D.C. has seen its female labor participation rate rise as more mothers returned to work. However, since older children no longer needed private child care, the program may have contributed to skyrocketing local costs of infant and toddler care.

Scaling up effective programs to the national level poses significant challenges, but many experts say the benefits far outweigh the costs. Proponents of universal pre-K programs maintain they improve children’s language skills, academic prospects, and social development and can result in better career outcomes later in life.

“If we provide high-quality education, our improvements in kids' long-term learning and development—cognitive, social, emotional and even physical—that has long-term payoffs in terms of people who are healthier, happier, and more productive,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Given the financial strain state and local governments have experienced due to the coronavirus pandemic, Clive Belfield, an economist at Queens College, City University of New York, said the federal government is in a better position to fund universal pre-K. Such programs also fulfill a vital need for families that are struggling with child care costs.

“The kids do much better in K-12, and that carries over into adulthood,” Belfield said. “The parents are in a much better place to work too. The effects from a lot of studies are very strong: big benefits measured in dollars.”

Some researchers have found limited lasting educational benefits from attending prekindergarten, though. According to some studies, children who went to preschool tend to perform better than those who did not in initial testing, but those advantages fade by second or third grade.

“If the goal is to expand the school system and provide free preschool to wealthier parents who otherwise have to pay for it, universal preschool makes perfect sense,” Katharine Stevens, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a USA Today op-ed last summer when Biden’s campaign announced its plan. “If the goal is to boost the life chances of America’s most disadvantaged children, however, it’s a deeply misguided approach.”

A report released last month by the Manhattan Institute concluded expanded access to early education can benefit deeply disadvantaged students. However, some other students could experience unintended and long-lasting negative consequences.

“The most representative and rigorous research on early childhood interventions does not suggest that additional investment would yield great benefits,” wrote author Max Eden. “Indeed, it provides good reason to believe that the opposite is true: additional investment may come at a substantial cost to the next generation.”

Critics of universal child care programs point to Quebec as an example of what can go wrong. The city implemented a subsidized child care program in the late 1990s that rapidly expanded enrollment, but researchers found an increase in hyperactivity, anxiety, and aggression in children who participated, as well as a rise in hostile and ineffective parenting.

According to Barnett, Quebec’s experience underscores the need to maintain quality standards and provide resources to educators. There is much to learn from states like Michigan, Oklahoma, and North Carolina that have introduced strong pre-K programs, as well as from the many states that done it poorly.

If the government promises high-quality early childhood education, it needs to incentivize states to deliver on that commitment. Overregulating and micromanaging programs can become a problem, as well, so policymakers must walk a fine line between promoting better services and creating unnecessary administrative burdens.

“You can’t just give them money with no strings, but you have to keep the numbers of strings low,” Barnett said.

Belfield also noted just making children eligible to attend publicly funded preschool might not be sufficient. Some families have been unable to take advantage of state programs due to logistical obstacles and lack of resources.

“The issue for families is that the funding is not enough to really help,” Belfield said. “So, a family might be offered ‘free pre-K,’ which sounds great until they find out that they only get max five hours per day and 30 weeks per year and it's a 30-minute drive away.”

A recent report published by the Center for American Progress cautioned against focusing too narrowly on increasing access to public preschools. Researchers recommended utilizing the existing infrastructure of private child care centers, Head Start programs, and in-home child care—as New York City and Pennsylvania have—possibly through federal block grants to states that can be distributed to a variety of programs.

Temple agreed a “mixed delivery” system that takes advantage of quality private child care and preschool facilities would be the wisest approach. Bringing millions of young children into public school classrooms could quickly overwhelm their resources, even with an influx of new federal funding.

“Schools just don’t have the room...,” Temple said. “You can’t really consider significant improvements in access without thinking about the supply side.”

Assuming Biden’s plan takes those concerns into account, it could provide a tremendous boost to both children and parents. It is a long way from being implemented, though, and there are many potential pitfalls experts say the White House and Congress must work to avoid.

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“I don’t think there are any drawbacks to doing it right,” Barnett said, “but you have to do it right.”

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