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Pre-K seems bipartisan now — but it won’t last

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Hillary Clinton's first big education policy proposal is here: universal pre-K.

Early childhood education is a signature issue for Clinton. She's been advocating for more and better public preschool since she was a governor's wife in Arkansas. In the past few years, she's gotten more company: President Obama called for a federal program to encourage states to expand pre-K, and creating universal pre-K was an early initiative for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Even some Republican governors have embraced it; the South leads the US on enrollment in publicly funded pre-K.

The US currently lags far behind other rich nations in enrolling 3- and 4-year-olds in school. About 78 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education, leaving the US ranked 25th out of 38 rich countries and developing economies. Mexico, Portugal, and France all have higher pre-K enrollment than the US.

So increasing enrollment in pre-K programs is a goal that governors from both parties have supported. But it's unlikely to be bipartisan at the national level, because there's a deep ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats over what role the federal government ought to play.

How pre-K became a central part of the Democratic education agenda

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton Campaigns In New Hampshire

Hillary Clinton reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a pre-K class in Rochester, New Hampshire.

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There are two reasons the Democratic Party has embraced pre-K. The first has to do with improving education. Research has shown that high-quality preschool programs can improve children's lives decades into the future.

The research on pre-K has generally found that spending on early childhood education pays off later on, because students who participate earn more money and are less likely to commit crime. Estimates vary as to how much, but a longitudinal study of early childhood education in Chicago found that every dollar spent saved $7 later on. That's largely because children who participated in the program were less likely to be arrested and imprisoned in the next 25 years than children who did not.

The second motivator is more economic. Child care is now as expensive as college tuition in some states. And creating free pre-K is part of a broader agenda to give working parents, particularly moms, some economic help.

How Clinton's pre-K plan might work

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President Obama with preschoolers at a synagogue event in May.

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The Clinton campaign didn't release detailed plans for how it would make universal pre-K a reality. But a fact sheet said it would build on the Obama administration's "Preschool for All" proposal, a centerpiece of the 2013 State of the Union address.

Here's how that proposal worked:

  • The federal government would give grants to states based on their population of low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds. States would give the money to school districts and other pre-K providers.
  • The federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost in the first year, with extra money for states that expanded the program to families making more than 200 percent of the poverty level. Gradually, over 10 years, states would be required to pay more of the bill.
  • Preschool programs would have to be "high-quality," meaning, among other things, that teachers would have to have bachelor's degrees, classes would have to be small, and programs would have to be monitored to make sure they're meeting standards.

In other words, states would have to commit to meeting some standards and kicking in some of their own money in order to participate. But at least in the early years, the federal government would pay most of the bill.

  • The Obama administration estimated that Preschool for All would cost $1.3 billion in its first year, and asked for an additional $750 million to create competitive grants for states to help them meet the program's requirements. They asked for $75 billion in new mandatory spending over 10 years.

Why pre-K seems bipartisan now — and why that might not last

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Students in an early learning program in Georgia, a red state that has embraced universal pre-K.

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When Democrats talk up universal pre-K, they often look to an unlikely place: red states. Georgia and Oklahoma both have big, publicly funded, and popular pre-K programs. This means Clinton can argue that pre-K is a bipartisan priority.

"Governors and state legislatures across the country are discovering the value of preschool. And this is bipartisan," Clinton said in New Hampshire. "You know, one of the states with a universal pre-K program in America is Oklahoma, about as red a state as you can get. But they have figured it out, the government and business leaders and families like, that this is a smart investment for them."

The programs in Oklahoma and Georgia were originally created by Democrats: Oklahoma's by a Democratic legislator and Georgia's by then-Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, who later switched parties. They've thrived since in red states with bipartisan support.

But there's no guarantee that Republican governors would want to accept even a giant federal carrot to expand their pre-K programs. Just look at Obamacare's Medicaid expansion: it offered states roughly the same deal as the administration's pre-K proposal. But when the Supreme Court removed the threat attached to the incentive — that states that didn't expand Medicaid would lose all of their Medicaid funding — 22 governors refused to go along.

Even if Republican governors like the idea of pre-K more than the idea of Obamacare, it's hard to overcome a huge, ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans on education. Schools traditionally have been controlled at the state and local level, and Republicans are skeptical of any attempt to expand federal authority.

Merely creating a voluntary grant competition as an incentive for states to change — as the Obama administration did with its Race to the Top competition — is now viewed with suspicion. The thinking is that if the federal government is providing even a small share of the money, it gets to make the rules.

Clinton's embrace of pre-K is a natural evolution of the Democratic agenda. But it's not going to be a bipartisan priority anytime soon.