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Biden’s pre-K plan might not be as “universal” as he hopes

Democrats want to expand preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds but risk deepening inequities in the process.

Preschooler Korey Hill works on an alphabet puzzle at Patterson Elementary School in Washington, DC, in February.
Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Advocates for the universal preschool plan in Democrats’ Build Back Better Act say it could be transformative for families and their 3- and 4-year-olds: giving parents flexibility, helping children grow and develop, and offering states a big return on their investment in pre-K expansion, all while boosting the country’s competitiveness on the global stage.

The $110 billion proposal for free, high-quality pre-K could offer early learning that helps kids throughout their lives. Early childhood education experts who spoke to Vox said the initiative is ambitious.

“This is unprecedented on the part of the federal government to get involved in education in quite this way,” says Elizabeth Cascio, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College who researches education and social policy. “Helping to establish another grade in the school system is not something the federal government has ever done.”

President Biden recently touted that his plan would be free and universal: “Studies show that the earlier our children begin to learn in school, the better. That’s why we’re going to make two years of high-quality preschool available to every child,” he wrote on Twitter. But critics warn it could fall short of providing the universal, high-quality early education it promises.

First, although universal pre-K has bipartisan support in some states, Republican governors could simply opt out of the federal funds under the Biden plan — some state lawmakers have already suggested they will. States may also balk at the plan’s short-term funding. The program is currently only funded for six years, and federal assistance decreases significantly in the last two yeas.

Then there’s the question of how to measure what an effective pre-K program actually is: The proposal doesn’t lay out specifics on how to measure the quality of pre-K programs. This, education experts argue, risks worsening learning and behavioral outcomes for kids, especially those from high-needs communities.

The Biden administration’s vision is admirable but doesn’t offer a clear roadmap — one that truly bolsters the inclusion of all 3- and 4-year-olds — experts warn. “There are incredible barriers to Black and Latino families living in segregated disadvantage, which means their children are already disproportionately unable to access pre-K services,” said John Fantuzzo, director of the Penn Child Research Center and professor of human relations at the Penn Graduate School of Education. “If the federal government merely expands what already exists, without rethinking who is in need or what [high] quality is, the deployment of these services won’t move the needle for those who need it most.”

As the Senate weighs the sweeping social-spending bill, Democrats are confident that federal and state lawmakers will back the preschool proposal. “We know that these programs are good for children. There’s a very strong research base that shows that [pre-K] has a great return on investment,” said Carmel Martin, deputy director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council for Economic Mobility and an architect of the plan. “And we know that states across the country are interested in expanding access to these programs since so many of them already have state-funded preschool programs. It’s not just something that’s popular with Democratic leaders.”

What the research says about preschool

For decades, education reformers and policymakers have searched for ways to close opportunity gaps — unequal access to the resources that children need to be successful in school and in life. As early as kindergarten, students from high-income families are ahead of those from low-income families on reading, math, and social and emotional skills, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

Expanding high-quality early childhood education, namely pre-K programs, has been offered up as one way to close these gaps.

Though not all studies of Head Start, the federal program that funds preschool for low-income children, have found clear long-term benefits, most research on the program has found that kids who participate are more likely to graduate high school and attend college, with benefits transferring across generations.

Studies of state-funded pre-K programs are similar: Not all have found significant, lasting positive effects, but studies have found improvements in social, emotional, and behavioral skills, graduation rates, SAT-taking rates, and employment rates as well as decreases in juvenile incarceration and teen pregnancy rates for students who participated. Researchers have often found that children from low-income families and dual-language learners benefit more than children from middle- or high-income backgrounds and those who are English proficient.

Pre-K teacher Vera Csizmadia teaches 3- and 4-year-old students in her classroom at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center in Palisades Park, New Jersey, in September.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Proponents also point to preschool as a boon for parents, particularly low-income parents. The opportunity to leave their children in the care of educators for a full day allows them to enter the workforce full time or pursue higher education. Washington, DC’s universal pre-K program helped lead to a 10 percentage-point increase in labor force participation for women with young children.

Forty-four states, DC, and Guam already funded some kind of preschool program during the 2019-20 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. But most American kids under 5 weren’t enrolled in preschool that year: Only 34 percent of 4-year-olds and 6 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled across the states that offer it. States spent more than $9 billion on preschool programs, spending $5,449 per child on average, that year.

“It used to be that 5-year-olds were on the margins of school entry — by the mid-1960s, only about half of states funded kindergarten,” Cascio said. “The progress has been much faster with pre-K, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Democrats’ six-year plan would offer free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds by sharing costs between states and the federal government to more than double the current number of preschool seats, offering slots to more than 6 million children. The bill would also require states to increase the salaries of preschool staff, establish new degree requirements for educators, develop new curricula for preschools, and regularly report progress to the Department of Health and Human Services.

But there are at least three major areas where the plan could fall short of its goal.

1) Red states might refuse federal funds for universal pre-K

In a January poll of American adults from the nonpartisan First Five Years Fund, 73 percent of Republicans and 95 percent of Democrats were in favor of making free preschool more available to all 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents want to send them.

But the bipartisan support behind pre-K expansion doesn’t mean that all states, particularly red states, will sign up. Preschool programs have thrived in conservative states like Georgia and Oklahoma for years, but there’s no guarantee that Republican governors, who have traditionally left education up to local and state leaders, will want more involvement from the federal government.

“It’s the state’s responsibility to fund government education, not the federal government’s. Each community is different,” Sherri Ybarra, Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction, told the Wall Street Journal. “If I had the opportunity to sit down with President Biden, I would say, ‘Let the states focus on where they think their students need the most intervention and the most help.’”

Republican lawmakers in multiple states, including Missouri, Minnesota, North Carolina, and New Hampshire, told the Washington Post that they were wary of parts of the program, with some citing federal overreach as a concern.

“Republican leaders have supported federal investment in preschool historically. The way the program is set up, it is not the federal government getting inappropriately involved,” says Martin. “We want to partner with states, and the program anticipates that states would be the ones administering and setting standards for the program.”

The bill also contains a backup plan that allows the Department of Health and Human Services to partner with the local governments directly should states not opt in, allowing providers, from nonprofit organizations to schools and childcare centers, within the mixed-delivery system to receive funding.

2) The money eventually disappears

From 2022 to 2024, the program would dole out money to the states based on population trends and child poverty rates — priority will be given to programs for children from families with income at or below 200 percent of the poverty line — setting aside $4 billion, $6 billion, and $8 billion for each year, respectively. Then in the next three years, from 2025 to 2027, a phase-down begins with the government picking up about 95 percent of state expenditures, down to about 63 percent in the final year. Year four of the program is the only year that government covers nearly all expected costs.

Chart: “The Build Back Better Act won’t cover all of states’ pre-K needs”

This shrinking pot of funds might turn some states away. As Matt Bruenig at the left-leaning think tank People’s Policy Project noted, the size of the program has only decreased with each iteration of the bill. In the first draft, the federal government covered 100 percent of state costs in the first three years and even picked up 60 percent of state costs in 2028.

Whether this shrunken federal contribution would be enough to entice states is left to be seen. One GOP lawmaker from Minnesota called the plan a “bait and switch,” since the money from the federal government decreases. Plus, the cost of establishing or expanding universal pre-K could vary widely from state to state: Some states may have extra space to house pre-K programs, for example, while others may need to build from scratch.

The first three years of the program will focus on pre-K expansion for children from low-income backgrounds, but some early education experts worry the targeted approach expires too soon.

States move to a universal free-for-all entitlement program in year four. But first, they have to ensure that “a majority of children” in high-needs communities have been offered the opportunity to enroll. The word “majority” could prove consequential, says Bruce Fuller, a sociologist and professor of education at the University of California Berkeley.

“If you look at states like the Dakotas or Montana, proportionately, they have huge populations of low-income and lower-middle-income class families who don’t have affordable pre-K,” said Fuller. “And how you fill that void in two to three years is going to be a pressing question.”

For many states, expanding pre-K is simply a matter of money. “The lack of funding has been a major impediment,” Cascio said. “States feeling constrained financially has been a major impediment to the expansion of these programs and meeting all children’s needs.”

And since almost all states already offer some form of free preschool, proponents of the Biden administration’s plan see federal funding as a continuation of state-level plans. “The funds are meant to supplement but not supplant dollars that states are already investing,” said Rasheed Malik, the director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress. “With this plan, it’s not possible to hit the pedal and go from zero to 60 right away. There’s sensitivity to the fact that states need to have a plan to make sure they’re not going to disrupt the supply of infant and toddler child care in communities.”

Federal spending increases in the first three years, with the expectation that it will take time for pre-K to be expanded into all communities in a state. Then in the final three years, the training wheels come off. “If a state government is forward-looking, they have to decide whether they’re going to be ready to ride the bike on their own,” Cascio said. “Are they going to have the state capacity and the fiscal capacity to do it on their own?”

A Build Back Better sign is displayed in a pre-K classroom at East End Elementary School in North Plainfield, New Jersey, on October 25, when President Biden visited the school.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The six-year time frame also comes with the hope and expectation that the plan will be renewed and extended once leaders and constituents realize the benefits, though it’s clear that the amount of years is a result of political considerations as opposed to research that shows how long it would take to implement the program. It took decades to usher in kindergarten, and it’s still not compulsory across the country. But in states like Georgia and Oklahoma, the pre-K programs experienced dramatic year-on-year increases in pre-K enrollment when they rolled out their programs. “There is evidence to suggest that when a state is interested in doing this they can ramp up fairly quickly,” Cascio said.

3) The guarantees on quality aren’t tough enough

Experts say that children from low-income families are best buoyed by high-quality pre-K, and studies show that low-quality pre-K could actually worsen outcomes for children of all circumstances.

But what “high quality” means is, in part, left to state governments to determine. To qualify for funding, if they do opt in, states will have to submit plans to the Department of Health and Human Services that estimate how much money they need to create and expand programs. States will also have certain requirements to receive the funding, like meeting quality thresholds that the states will define themselves, as long as the programs are not lower quality than Head Start.

But, some early education experts say, giving so much leeway to states could leave communities out.

“Who is defining need, and who is defining quality?” said Fantuzzo. “Do states have the capacity to understand where their preschool deserts are, and then will they have the time to get their act together to provide resources to those with the greatest need?”

The Biden administration says it wants to give states the room to develop and implement systems that work best for their population’s unique challenges and needs, and that all states will have to follow expansion strategies that are backed by research.

“The core of the approach to quality is that it gives flexibility for states to define the standards but requires them to do it based on evidence,” says Martin. “We have a fair amount of research that helps us understand what quality looks like. So states have to ensure that it’s being implemented.”

The proposal plans to press these quality provisions on states, but there’s no guarantee that states would reach high quality or distribute quality progressively, Fuller says.

Fuller’s examination of New York City’s pre-K expansion found that preschools mirrored the racial segregation of K-12 schools: Preschools serving mostly white or Asian families offered higher-quality environments than programs in the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods since city leaders lost track of the distribution of quality.

A 2019 Education Trust study of 26 states and their preschool programs found that just 1 percent of Latino children and only 4 percent of Black children in those states were enrolled in high-quality preschool. Ultimately, Fuller fears that Biden’s blanket entitlement approach — extending free pre-K to well-off families — will cement an uneven playing field. (There’s some disagreement among experts here: Research Cascio conducted on Georgia and Oklahoma’s universal pre-K programs suggested that the presence of higher-income children may help to attract better teachers and improve quality for low-income children too.)

“States are not going to invent systems that meet the needs of the underserved. They’re just going to use what everyone else has already used, so they’re going to get the same results as before,” Fantuzzo said.

Children play together at Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center in Baltimore, Maryland, in January.
Matt Roth for the Washington Post via Getty Images

The program is better than the status quo, experts agree

Taken together with the child care investments proposed in the bill, most experts agree that the Build Back Better bill’s goals are a boon for children and families and beneficial for society at large.

“It’s important for folks to understand how inaccessible and inequitable the system is currently,” Malik said. “It is determined by a family’s income right now. Current childcare dollars that do go to preschools and care for younger kids and Head Start combined really can’t even serve 1/10th of the number of low-income kids who really need it.”

Over the decades, as the public has come to embrace the benefits of early childhood education, higher-income families have spent more money on private programs, only increasing opportunities gaps in education. Martin told Vox that universal pre-K would have big returns for state economies and is one of the best investments states can make for the country’s competitiveness, for children’s futures, and for parent choice.

“Once we get to the end of the six years we are going to get a lot closer to universality than we are now, and it will be really popular and remain a really high priority for legislators who have always shown a commitment to this issue in the abstract,” Malik said. “We’ll look back at this as a major turning point in early childhood education.”

Others aren’t as optimistic as Malik but share in his hope. “Pre-K too often inadvertently hardens inequities in children’s futures,” said Fuller. “We have a chance now to build a pre-K system that’s more progressive than the public schools, but it’s going be a massive experiment.”