Biden’s plan for universal preschool still on the table
Experts disagree on how valuable the program would be
While Congress seems to have moved on from President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, one piece of it may still have a chance: universal preschool. The larger social spending plan has stalled indefinitely since Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he would not vote for it. (The bill would require the support of all 50 Democratic senators and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.) But Manchin has expressed support for universal preschool and said he is “all in” for getting it done.
Some states—both red and blue—already offer universal or near-universal preschool. The public programs usually cover all 4-year-olds, and in some cases, 3-year-olds, according to W. Steven Barnett, founder and senior co-director at the National Institute for Early Education Research. While some early childhood education leaders claim the measure is vital, others say universal preschool programs aren’t the most effective strategy for helping young learners.
As of April 2021, three states provided a statewide universal preschool program: Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont, in addition to Washington, D.C. Nine other states offer programs available to most 4-year-olds. Colorado is considering making universal preschool available, and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear added funding for universal preschool to his budget proposal.
But some experts say universal preschool offers the wrong solution. Chester Finn, senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, thinks preschool is important but said the universal model is not the right tool. On the one hand, it offers free preschool to families who don’t need government help, creating a greater expense to the taxpayer. On the other, it doesn’t adequately support students who have a greater need for early education, he said.
If the government funds a preschool, it can dictate the curricula and other aspects of education. Barnett sees the continuity of that approach as an advantage: “If a kindergarten teacher finds that they have 20 students coming from 20 different curricula, that presents an unnecessary challenge to the kindergarten teacher.”
But some religious groups worried the Build Back Better plan would require faith-based preschool programs to adhere to federal nondiscrimination rules regarding sexuality, The New York Times reported in November. The early education department of the Association of Christian Schools International said in a statement to WORLD that a government program may force faith-based programs to choose between accepting money or “compromising their mission.”
The association prefers a model in which Congress directs funding to parents, similar to the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act: “Government involvement can help if it is regulated to ensure funding goes to parents and religious schools are free to be religious.”
Not everyone agrees that preschool is the best educational route for every child, and families that don’t enroll their children in organized preschool would not benefit from the Biden plan. Some scholars point out that studies on preschool effectiveness discount the value of early learning at home with parents and in high-quality childcare settings.
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