The Redlines in the Obama Administration’s Pre-K Proposal

by Reihan Salam

The Obama administration has released a factsheet on its early education initiative. Given some of the concerns I’ve been raising — that the federal match will encourage overspending, that the federal government’s approach will be overly prescriptive — the news is not great. We don’t have rock-solid details on how the match will be structured, so we’ll see how that pans out. But consider the following:

Funds will support states as they ensure that children are enrolled in high-quality programs.   In order to access federal funding, states would be required to meet quality benchmarks that are linked to better outcomes for children, which include:

o State-level standards for early learning;

o Qualified teachers for all preschool classrooms; and

o A plan to implement comprehensive data and assessment systems.

Preschool programs across the states would meet common and consistent standards for quality across all programs, including:

o Well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff;

o Small class sizes and low adult to child ratios;

o A rigorous curriculum;

o Comprehensive health and related services; and

o Effective evaluation and review of programs.

How will we determine which kinds of teachers are deemed qualified? This is presumably a domain in which different approaches might yield different conclusions. One assumes that public employee unions will make an effort to control this certification process. The definition of “well-trained,” if experience is any guide, may well include some level of postgraduate instruction, a boon to incumbent higher education providers. These institutions will serve as yet another pressure group designed to narrow the number of potential instructors.

Moreover, the federal government is explicitly establishing that teachers must be “paid comparably to K-12 staff,” even if, for example, state and local initiatives determine that, for example, it is better to have more less-expensive staffers than fewer more-expensive staffers. The federal government is also insisting on small class sizes — so even if it makes more sense for a pre-K programs to have a high adult to child ratio but teachers who are paid substantially more than K-12 staff, that option is off the table.

Some aspects of the agenda ought to be uncontroversial — who is against effective evaluation or comprehensive data and assessment systems? (Actually, some people are, so kudos to the Obama administration.) But why predetermine how teachers ought to be compensated? 

I would be far more sympathetic to the president’s pre-K initiative if the $20 billion per annum it is expected to cost were carved out of the $108 billion the federal government spent on all education programs last year, particularly if it is true that this initiative is likely to yield bigger economic gains than the least effective $20 billion the federal government is already spending. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.