Americans May Receive Universal Preschool before Universal Health Care

While conservatives storm the Bastille in their epic struggle against universal health care, Congress has been quietly moving forward on a higher education bill that could transform pre-K education in this country:

Tucked away in an $87 billion higher education bill that passed the House last week was a broad new federal initiative aimed not at benefiting college students, but at raising quality in the early learning and care programs that serve children from birth through age 5.

The initiative, the Early Learning Challenge Fund, would channel $8 billion over eight years to states with plans to improve standards, training and oversight of programs serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

The Senate is expected to pass similar legislation this fall, giving President Obama, who proposed the Challenge Fund during the presidential campaign, a bill to sign in December.

American child care and preschool education is a disorganized mess: not only do private and public sectors compete with each other, but even public agencies like Head Start contend with state-led programs targeting at risk children. The fund would reward those states that are at least making an effort to integrate their pre-K systems by providing governance structures, quality standards, and curricula.

The Early Learning Challenge Fund matters because it represents another step in the long transition in this country towards universal childcare and preschool. Already, starting in the mid 90's, a succession of states moved towards providing universal pre-K education: Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma led the way, followed in this decade by West Virginia, Florida, and Illinois. While these programs vary in terms of funding and children enrolled, they indicate an evolving standard that preschool education is a public good and should be universalized. This is particularly evident in Florida's case, where the legislature failed to pass bills providing universal pre-K access and was eventually overruled by a voter's initiative to change the state constitution in 2002.

In contrast to the embarrassingly superficial national debate over health care, this is a textbook example of how a conservative electorate can support the expansion of government when the issue at hand is presented in a clear and practical way, and isn't subjected to a clamor of ideological slogans.

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