If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this — education should not be a partisan issue. Sure, various approaches to education policy should be hotly debated, and they certainly are. But, making sure that all of our kids get a great education — how could it be a partisan issue? Everyone — in both parties — should support equal opportunity in education, regardless of a child’s income, zip code or family circumstances. — Betsy DeVos, American Federation for Children’s National Policy Summit, May 22, 2017
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said time and again that she wants every child to have access to a high-quality education. Every speech she gives contains lines to that effect. DeVos claims that she “want[s] to unleash the potential of every student,” she has written that “EVERY kid deserves the equal opportunity to go to the school that’s best for them,” and she ostensibly believes that “education is a fundamental right afforded to every child in this country.”
So what about preschool? High-quality early childhood education has long been shown to positively impact development, and preschool reform has at least some degree of bipartisan support. If Betsy DeVos really wants to unleash the potential of every student, she should consider working with states to expand access to high-quality preschool.
The value of early childhood education
It is well-established that the experiences a child has in the first few years of life play an enormous role in cognitive function and emotional well-being. Unfortunately, children living in poverty are far less likely than children in middle-income households to have the kinds of early experiences which lay strong foundations and lead to healthy development. According to the nonpartisan research organization RAND, “[N]eighborhoods of concentrated poverty . . . provide more limited opportunities for young children in terms of social interaction, positive role models, and other resources, such as quality child care, health facilities, parks, and playgrounds.”
It seems unlikely that a solution to systemic poverty will be found over the next few years, but there is something that can be done in the interim to help even the playing field for children from poor backgrounds: expand access to early childhood education programs. High-quality early childhood education can serve as a kind of equalizer, a way of giving children living in poverty a better chance at success later on.
The impact of a quality early childhood education on a child’s later academic performance and emotional well-being has been shown in many programs in studies dating back to the 1960s, but a program that might be of particular interest to DeVos is one found in her home state: Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program.
Michigan case study: Great Start Readiness Program
Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), a “state-funded preschool program for four-year-old children with factors which may place them at risk of educational failure,” is one of the most promising state-funded preschool programs in the US today. GSRP is one of the only early childhood education programs that has followed its students through middle school and high school to measure achievement as compared to a demographically similar control group.
GSRP conducted a long-range study lasting from 1995 to 2011 that compared the academic and post-academic careers of children who attended the program and children who didn’t, and found that “students attending this successful program did better throughout their academic careers, had lower dropout rates, had higher incomes as adults and were imprisoned less frequently than children who didn’t attend preschool.”
DeVos, who has long been a proponent of school choice in K-12 education, might find Michigan’s program of interest for another reason: as noted by an analyst at the education nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, GSRP is a kind of school choice for preschool. Parents can choose from a variety of different types of preschool programs through the Intermediate School District that serves their county — programs including those run by “local school districts/public school academies and public or private, non-profit or for-profit community-based agencies.” It should be noted that the main reason this kind of choice system works in this case is that the programs are held to state-wide standards, and the quality of the program as a whole is regularly assessed through their Program Quality Assessment system.
Given DeVos’s intense interest in, and funding of, Michigan charter schools and voucher programs, it seems likely that she would have some interest in Michigan’s highly successful, choice- and charter-friendly preschool program. (The idea of charter preschools hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but it has some promise and could potentially appeal to both the left and the right.)
DeVos would do well to take a look at Michigan’s example and see if what they’re doing might be scalable, both in terms of preschool programs around the country and possibly in terms of K-12 education.
Early childhood education in the 2018 budget proposal
The attitude of this administration toward early childhood education remains somewhat unclear even after the release of the 2018 budget proposal. It doesn’t look like early childhood programs will be a priority in this administration — along with many other devastating cuts in this budget proposal, the budget of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which helps fund things like child welfare programs, will be reduced by almost $8 billion. But it appears that at least some of the current early childhood education programs will continue.
According to the proposal, Head Start, a program that “promotes school readiness of children under 5 from low-income families through education, health, social and other service,” will continue to be funded, as will preschool grants for special education students. The administration also plans to continue the Preschool Development Grants program, which awards money to states attempting to “(1) build or enhance a preschool program infrastructure that would enable the delivery of high-quality preschool services to children, and (2) expand high-quality preschool programs in targeted communities that would serve as models for expanding preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.” (The Preschool Development Grants program is jointly administered by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and starting next year the money for the grants will be taken out of the HHS budget.)
Perhaps most encouraging is the rationale given in ACF’s 2018 budget submission for continuing to fund the Preschool Development Grants: “Research confirms that high-quality preschool improves school readiness and long-term academic success of children by supporting their academic and social-emotional skills. Support for this grant is an important step to building a globally competitive 21st century workforce.” Of course, maintaining the status quo is nowhere near enough. But an acknowledgement of the importance of early childhood education means that there is at least some hope that the administration isn’t dead set against expanding these programs.
Betsy DeVos’s unknown stance on preschool
What remains a complete mystery is the attitude Betsy DeVos herself has toward early childhood education ― or whether she can be made to see the value of expanding access to quality preschool programs. Prior to her cabinet appointment, DeVos focused almost exclusively on K-12 education, so her views on early childhood education and higher education were largely unknown at the time of her appointment.
Betsy DeVos is a contentious figure in a cabinet full of them. She is a longtime supporter of school choice and voucher systems, which allow parents to send their children to whichever school they wish, public or private. Charter schools have supporters (as well as opponents) across the political spectrum, but support for the kind of school choice that DeVos is a proponent of falls more along party lines: many on the right view school choice and voucher systems as a way of giving power back to parents and states, while many on the left view them as a way of funneling funding away from public schools and the country’s most disadvantaged students.
But preschool reform might be a way to start to bridge the gap between the right and the left, which is yet another reason for DeVos to turn her attention to preschool. Preschool reform is one thing that actually does have some degree of bipartisan support, and one thing that might gain DeVos some political capital and endear her (if marginally) to her opponents.
A 2014 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans favor using federal funding to ensure that high-quality preschool programs are available to every child in America. There was a divide along party lines, with support from 87 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans, but those numbers still indicate support across the aisle.
It should be noted that a more extreme and left-leaning question about support for a proposal to enact free universal childcare and preschool in a 2016 Gallup poll was supported by 59 percent of Americans, but was more predictably split along party lines: it drew support from 81 percent of Democrats but only 36 percent of Republicans. However, as the poll analysis points out, less than half (46 percent) of Republicans said they disagreed with it outright.
While a proposal for free universal childcare and preschool is too extreme to gain real bipartisan support, DeVos should focus on something smaller and more likely to be accepted by both sides. Starting and increasing funding for challenges and grant programs for states to create and implement preschool programs held to a high set of standards, would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction.
There is precedent from both Democrats and Republicans for expansion of early childhood programs. In 2007, George W. Bush reauthorized Head Start and added some measures to strengthen it, and Obama made early childhood education and access to childcare a priority throughout his presidency, supporting programs like Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge and the Preschool Development Grants.
These programs aren’t perfect ― states don’t always know how best to structure high-quality preschool programs or how to measure success, and the standards preschools are held to are still uneven ― but some states have created preschool programs that show a lot of promise. If DeVos were to focus on preschool expansion, she would simply be following in the footsteps of the previous two administrations.
Should Secretary DeVos want to prove to her opponents that she is sincere in her stated desire to provide all kids ― regardless of income, race, zip code, or disability ― with a quality education, a concerted effort to expand access to and funding for high-quality preschool programs would be an excellent start.
This piece was originally published on Rantt.