02/22/2013 05:34 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Preschool: A Nonpartisan No-brainer

On Feb. 12, in his State of the Union address, President Obama declared his intention "to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America." The impact was immediate and explosive. "Universal preschool" has not fallen from the lips of any U.S. president in the past 50 years, according to a scan conducted by First Five Years Fund. Suddenly, education's stepchild has become the policy world's "It Girl."

The president sealed the deal in his visionary valentine at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., where Democratic Governor Zell Miller pioneered universal Pre-K in 1996. "We took Georgia where no state has ever gone before," Miller reflected, with pride, a couple of years later."At that time, I compared it to Columbus, sailing off into the unknown on the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria."

Today, Miller's gubernatorial descendants, on both sides of the aisle, are pushing further into this terra incognita. In his 2014 budget, Deval L. Patrick, of Massachusetts, includes nearly $57 million to increase access to high-quality early education programs, with a commitment to provide universal access by fiscal year 2017. He's also dedicated "$60.5 [million] to enhance the quality of early education programs and the effectiveness of the early educator workforce, including higher education grants for providers of children's programs." Michigan's Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, has proposed expanding the state's Great Start early childhood program. Ditto for Alabama's Republican Governor Robert Bentley, who has called for a 60 percent increase in the state's preschool budget, with a goal of preschool for all on a ten-year timeline of increasing investment. Other states are following suit.

But no sooner had Obama started to flesh out his plan than the sniping commenced. The Wall Street Journal went right for the liberal jugular, with syntax as convoluted as the argument: "If the regular public schools aren't working," their editorial complained, "... does it make sense to layer on another defective education level, except earlier in life?" Conservative avatar Charles Murray, co-author of the infamous Bell Curve, and more recently, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960s -2010, weighed in at Bloomberg on "The Shaky Science Behind Obama's Universal Pre-K," concluding with a nauseating indictment of the "absent, uncaring or incompetent parenting" that he sees among the beneficiaries of early childhood education.

Other critiques were more nuanced, including the deconstruction of the Obama plan, by Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, of the Brookings Institution, who, among other things, accused the president of "bait-and-switch" on the universal question. "I'm sure there are a lot of parents who can resonate to... taxpayer-funded preschool for all," he wrote, but the White House fact sheet, he noted, says otherwise: "The administration's plan is to share the costs with states that are willing to expand public preschool to reach all four-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line." The government's proposal, I might add, would include an incentive for states to expand preschool to additional middle-class families, who may be served in a variety of ways, including by sliding scale.

Point taken. Obama may well be hedging his bets. But as a believer in taxpayer-funded preschool for all (I prefer the term "public good," thank you), I like to think that the president's paving the way for the whole nine yards. How about that legacy, on which he seems to be working so diligently? I'm holding out for the vision articulated in his groundbreaking "Plan for Early Education for all Americans." Here's the introductory rationale:

"A zip code should never predetermine the quality of any child's educational opportunities. Yet studies show that children from low-income families are less likely to have access to high-quality early education, and less likely to enter school prepared for success. By third grade, children from low-income families who are not reading at grade level are six times less likely to graduate from high school than students who are proficient. Often, the high costs of private preschool and lack of public programs also narrow options for middle-class families.

High-quality early childhood education provides the foundation for all children's success in school and helps to reduce achievement gaps. Despite the individual and economic benefits of early education, our nation has lagged in its commitment to ensuring the provision of high quality public preschool in our children's earliest years. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that the United States ranks 28th out of 38 countries for the share of four-year olds enrolled in early childhood education. And fewer than 3 in 10 four-year olds are enrolled in high-quality programs."

Fie on the naysayers. I'm on board with "Kids First" author David Kirp, who recently opined: "... as with immigration reform, gun control, marriage equality and raising the minimum wage, they're on the wrong side of history." Indeed.