Sooner the Better: Oklahoma is a model for how states should provide pre-K.

AuthorLoewenberg, Aaron

On October 28 of last year, after months of tense negotiations with progressive and moderate lawmakers in his own party, President Joe Biden walked into the East Room of the White House to announce a "framework" for his stalled Build Back Better bill. Among the policies that would be funded by the $1.75 trillion initiative was a $400 billion commitment to lower the cost of child care and expand access to pre-kindergarten. If enacted, the plan would "finally take us from 12 years to 14 years of universal education in America," Biden said.

For advocates of universal preschool, it seemed like a watershed moment. With Democrats in control of the Senate, supporters of expanded pre-K access were optimistic that, whatever details might be changed in the legislative process, the president would soon sign a bill that ushered in a new era of federal support for early education of the country's young children. Finally, after decades of slow but steady growth in pre-K access at the state level, the federal government was going to dedicate billions of dollars to improve the patchwork of state, local, and private pre-K programs that left millions of families without high-quality early childhood education.

Given the Senate's 50-50 split, pundits figured that the odds of Biden being able to pass sweeping social policy were slim. But it still came as a shock to pre-K advocates when the bill was wholly shattered on December 19, in a familiar graveyard for Democratic dreams--Fox News Sunday. To the surprise of many in Washington (including the Biden administration, which was given only 30 minutes of advance notice), Senator Joe Manchin delivered a bombshell, stating, "I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation." Just like that, the 50 votes needed to pass Build Back Better disappeared, along with the hopes of many who had believed that the country was finally going to make a national commitment to educating its youngest people.

Despite several months of reassurances since Manchin's announcement that the senator and the White House are still engaged in closed-door pre-K negotiations, it now seems clear that the window of opportunity has all but closed for Democrats, on their own, to pass transformational federal legislation to provide the 14 years of education that Biden envisioned in his October speech. Senate Republicans have countered with a far more modest bill to broaden eligibility for receiving child care assistance, but those funds would not be available for pre-K programs.

What this means is that, once again, any hopes of expanding pre-K probably rest on efforts at the state and local levels. The irony is that when you ask advocates which state has the most effective pre-K program in the country, many will say, without hesitation, Oklahoma. The same ruby-red state that recently passed a near-total abortion ban and last supported a Democrat for president in 1964 has operated a no-cost pre-K program open to all four-year-olds regardless of income since 1998. How that came to be, and what it teaches about the best way forward for pre-K, is worth a deeper look.

The question of whether public pre-K is beneficial for children has largely been answered: The majority of rigorous evaluations of large-scale, public pre-K programs have...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT