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Universal or Targeted Preschool, That is The Question

With Bernie Sanders proposing that all public universities become tuition-free zones for students of all stripes, and Hillary Clinton pushing a plan that would target middle- and low-income Americans with scholarship money, the higher ed debate is beginning to travel the well-worn paths early educators have trod for years. That is: Should we spend more money to make preschool free for everyone? Or, given limits on funging, should we target our spending to children whose parents couldn't otherwise afford preschool?  

A think piece on preschool enrollment published this week by Sarah Garland, Executive Editor of The Hechinger Report, asks that question and arrives at the less-than-satisfying conclusion that, in this country at least, we have no idea what works best. We do know, however, that we are not doing what works best. 

Not all the children who qualify for the free programs we do have are actually able to attend because there isn't enough funding to serve all of them, and many families who don't qualify still struggle to find high quality care they can afford. The U.S. ranks 30th among OECD countries, a common proxy for advanced economies, in school enrollment for 3- and 4-year-olds. We do better at enrolling kids in college, but our rates of college-going have barely grown in recent decades.

And though early ed and higher ed are at opposite ends of the education spectrum, they share a surprising number of characteristics. Firstly, they cost about the same. Secondly, they are both known to have a direct effect on a given student's chance of being well-employed and independent. Thirdly, they are currently both caught in a morass of complex spending initiatives that consistently weave public and private funds together in confusing ways. And finally, both serve a wide range of students, some of whom need far more academic support and outside services—and therefore more public money—to be successful than others.

"In early education there are children who need a light touch. They're from very wealthy, high resourced families and they're ready for school with very little additional support," Kris Perry of the First Five Years Fund, an early education advocacy group, told The Hechinger Report(Full disclosure, I also work for The Hechinger Report.) "Then there are children from very low resourced, very needy families that need a high touch. And that difference should drive the conversation."

Garland's article does not start out as an either-or proposition: either we fund universal college access OR we fund universal preschool access. But some of the experts she interviews go there pretty quickly. Steve Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University makes the argument that paying for universal preschool would be a more sound financial decision.

"The cost savings in K-12, the reduced costs of the criminal justice system, the reduced health care costs—all of those are public benefits," Barnett told The Hechinger Report. "Most of the return in investing in higher education is private."

But is there the will to pay for it? Will a President Hillary Clinton or a President Bernie Sanders or a President Jeb Bush or a President Marco Rubio take the country on a different path that includes true universal preschool or college access? Or will we have more of the same partial measures and blended funding streams that leave many families to fend for themselves in an increasingly expensive education market?

Read Garland's whole piece to get more details about the back-and-forth to figure out where you stand in the debate and what you think is possible going forward.

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