Universal pre-K: Common sense or calamity?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Biden last week unveiled the American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion proposal to expand access to education and childcare across the country. Among the many provisions in the plan — which include paid leave, free community college, and tax breaks for parents — is $200 billion to provide for universal pre-kindergarten.

If enacted, the American Families Plan would establish a partnership between the federal government and states to offer “free, high-quality, accessible, and inclusive preschool” nationwide. The Biden administration estimates that universal pre-K would benefit 5 million children and save the average family $13,000 in childcare costs. Biden has proposed paying for his plan by increasing tax rates for the wealthy and closing certain tax loopholes.

“Adding two years of universal, high-quality preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old, no matter what background they come from, puts them in the position of being able to compete all the way through 12 years and increases exponentially their prospect of graduating and going on beyond graduation,” Biden said during his first address to Congress last week.

Though many developed countries provide a form of universal childcare, the only national childcare program ever in the U.S. existed for a few years during World War II to allow women to participate in the workforce while their husbands were overseas. Congress did pass legislation to establish a permanent nationwide daycare system in 1971. But then-President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, citing what he called the “family-weakening implications” of government childcare.

Why there’s debate

Proponents of universal pre-K point to a substantial body of research that suggests formal schooling at a young age has a significant positive impact on a child’s cognitive development and future prospects in school and the workplace. According to an estimate cited by the White House, universal pre-K may even provide a long-term financial benefit three times the value of the upfront costs by making students more likely to have good jobs that produce tax revenue and less likely to rely on other government programs when they grow up.

Supporters argue that free pre-K would also have an immediate positive effect on the economy. They argue that the overwhelming cost of daycare forces many parents, particularly women, out of the workforce. Free pre-K, backers say, would allow many families to bring in a second income and avoid the often permanent career setbacks that occur when parents take time off to care for their young children.

Opponents of universal pre-K say it would simply be too expensive to implement nationwide and are skeptical of the idea that it would pay for itself. Another common criticism is that the program would reduce the amount of quality time parents have with their kids and increase their dependence on the government. Some lawmakers, like Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, would rather have the government send money directly to parents, rather than pay for schools that may not be the best choice for many families. There are also some progressives who have called for a more comprehensive universal childcare program that covers all children, not just 3-and-4-year-olds.

What’s next

With Democrats focused on negotiations over Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, it’s unclear at this early stage how much support the American Families Plan has in Congress and whether individual elements, like universal pre-K, might survive to the final bill.

Perspectives

Supporters

Private industry has proven it can’t provide equitable care to American children

“Relying on private providers can lead to care deserts as well as to price squeezes in the areas with more demand. These problems can’t be solved by giving people more money, as parents’ expenses are large and concentrated in the early years. Direct public provisioning of care work can ensure a baseline of quality and access that simply subsidizing the private sector can’t achieve.” — Mike Konczal, The Nation

High-quality preschool sets children up for success throughout their lives

“It was long believed that the initial burst of benefits attributed to preschool tended to dissipate within a few years, casting doubt on the long-term benefit of an earlier start to education. But more recent thinking and analysis indicate that preschool attendance correlates with higher rates of college attendance, lower rates of incarceration and lower likelihood of substance addiction later in life.” — Editorial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The high cost of daycare harms children

“For families living on the margins, a lack of stable childcare keeps parents from working, which can lead to housing instability, evictions, or worse. And that instability in quality care and housing has enormous negative consequences for child development.” — Brigid Schulte, Fast Company

Expensive daycare is holding back the economy and hurting women

“Our antiquarian family policies don’t just make life more difficult and expensive for parents and their children. They are also, in all likelihood, acting as a drag on the economy by keeping women out of the workplace. ” — Jordan Weissman, Slate

Childcare costs make the American Dream unreachable for many families

“Conservatives … can’t both claim to be the real backers of the working class and stand in the way of Biden providing the tools needed to let them support their families.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC

The government should also provide free care for younger kids

“In one major way, however, the Biden administration’s actions threaten to carry on a harmful disparity: Preschool and child care are being treated as separate enterprises of different value, when in fact preschool is simply one version of child care.” — Elliot Haspel, Hechinger Report

Opponents

Direct cash payments to parents would be better than universal pre-K

“I’d much rather see the administration cut out the money promised for pre-K and child care and fully fund a generous child allowance.” — Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox to New York Times

Universal pre-K would make families dependent on the government

“The plan seeks to insinuate government cash and the rules that go with it into all of the major decisions of family life. The goal is to expand the entitlement state to make Americans rely on government and the political class for everything they don’t already provide.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Parents should be encouraged to stay at home with their children

“There is no good argument for simply subsidizing day care. … The current tax code already includes provisions that are biased against stay-at-home parents. To exacerbate that with day care subsidies is discrimination, plain and simple: social engineering in favor of taking young children out of their parents’ care.” — Editorial, Washington Examiner

Pre-K would be the wrong choice for many families

“The taxes used to fund these programs will not be optional, but the programs will be valuable only to parents who structure their work and family lives in specific ways — and the government should not be bribing us to structure our lives in one way instead of another.” — Robert Verbruggen, National Review

Parents shouldn’t have to fund a childcare system they don’t want to use

“Those who opt to stay home and invest in their children should not have to subsidize the child care costs of other families at the same time.” — Rachel Greszler and Lindsey Burke, National Interest

Universal pre-K could make racial inequities in education worse

“An expansive, Scandinavian-style program would not likely narrow gross inequities, and close gaps in early language and social skills. Affluent families would instead move to, or politically demand, higher quality pre-K — just like the often segregated arrangement of our public schools.” — Bruce Fuller, Chicago Tribune

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