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Universal Preschool Implicates More Than Government Budgets and the Middle Class

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During Tuesday night's State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama called for a variety of big government initiatives to boost the middle class. One such initiative that took many politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle by surprise was Obama's insistence that working families ought to be provided access to early education. Translation: Get ready for a universal preschool push.

Despite the shock and awe response, this initiative is not unprecedented. In 2009, Obama stated that:

In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity, it is a pre-requisite. That is why it will be the goal of this Administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education -- from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.

In fact, many states such as Florida, Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania have gone so far as to implement state-funded universal pre-K. But, while education is lauded as the great equalizer, the implications of universal pre-K extend even beyond an investment in America's middle class.

Preschool is pretty much just another word for daycare. Daycare is a luxury, lack of access to which often prohibits many working mothers from either returning to work or leaving their child in the charge of a responsible caregiver.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter evidenced in her now-famous Atlantic editorial, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," being a working mother is still very hard. While mothers like Slaughter are fortunate enough to even have the choice to work, there are many who "cope with a work life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children." Universal preschool would alleviate this burden currently on the shoulders of so many over-worked mothers, advancing the American workforce even further in its quest to fully realize the potential of women, mothers or not.

But what are the drawbacks of universal pre-K? I'm not talking about the massively expensive endeavor which seems inherently doomed in Congress. I'm talking about the implications on childhood development.

A study released by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that the "more time children spent in child care from birth to age four-and-a-half... the less likely [they were] to get along with others, as more assertive, as disobedient, and as aggressive." Even more worrisomely, the study concluded that:

...the strongest predictor of how well a child behaves [is] a feature of maternal parenting that the researchers described as sensitivity -- how attuned a mother is to a child's wants and needs. The behaviors of the sensitive mother are child centered; the sensitive mother is aware of the child's needs, moods, interests, and capabilities. She allows this awareness to guide her interactions with her child. Children of more sensitive mothers were more competent socially, less likely to engage in disruptive behavior, and less likely to be involved in conflicts with their caregivers and teachers.

Okay, but countries like France have an entrenched, highly successful universal preschool system and French kids aren't being groomed into a bunch of sociopaths... as far as we know. In fact, an estimated 30 percent of 2-year-olds and nearly 100 percent of 3- to 6-year-olds attend the celebrated Écoles Maternelles (nursery schools).

Yes, this is true, but know what else France has? Cultural norms that reinforce universal pre-K as an integral component of childhood socialization and education.

First of all, France offers about four months of paid maternity leave, as opposed to the U.S., which offers a whopping zero. That, in and of itself, is an immeasurably valuable benefit for working mothers. Then, once the mother returns to work (as she will likely do, considering 82 percent of French women aged 25-49 work), there are social norms in place that will alleviate her burden. For instance, it is tradition from Cannes to Paris to take a lunch break. Shops close from noon-to-2 and children go home from school to eat with their parents (lunch is incidentally the biggest, most important meal of the day in most European countries). This means, that even if children are in school starting at age 4, they will still spend a significant of time with their parents throughout the workweek. Et, voilà! Well-adjusted French children.

I'm kidding, kind of. Obviously, rearing a successful, well-adjusted child takes a lot more than just eating lunch with them. But, the point is, the institution of universal pre-K stands to implicate far more than budgets, debts and the middle class. It could be an enormous help or hindrance to mothers and children alike, and our policymakers would be wise to proceed with caution as they turn their focus to providing high-quality education for all young children.