Education insiders overwhelmingly believe that President Obama's universal preschool proposal is going nowhere fast.
But, just for a second, let's pretend the program gets enacted. Let's also pretend that all 50 states fully embrace the plan and pony up funds to provide free or subsidized pre-k to every 4-year-old.
Where are those kids going to go?
It's not an idle question. There are basically two options right now:
- Expand public schools downward to serve 4-year-olds.
- Tap existing community-based, faith-based, and private preschools, nursery schools, and childcare centers to deliver the new pre-k program.
Experience with state pre-k programs shows that both approaches can, when well implemented and monitored, work to provide quality pre-k options to kids. But there's not enough capacity in existing systems to serve all kids in a universal system. Most public schools don't have the classrooms to add another grade of students. Current preschool, nursery school, and center-based care settings (including both parent-paid and publicly funded options) serve a bit less than 70% of all 4-year-olds, meaning that, in order to offer universal pre-k access, we'd need to expand the total number of pre-k seats by at least 40%. The need is even greater in some metro areas, where parents often find limited space, long waiting lists, or complex selection processes to get into any preschool program at all, and even more so in some rural areas, where there just aren't any preschool centers.
And that's before taking quality into account. But the point of universal pre-k isn't just to get more kids in programs. Its to get them into quality programs that prepare them for school. There's reason to believe that many, indeed most, existing community-based programs don't meet that standard. Providing additional resources, and setting higher standards, might enable some programs to get there (New Jersey's Abbott program offers one example of how to do this). But we can't just assume that all, or even most, existing community-based programs will be able to get there--some won't. By the same token, in places where public schools are underperforming, we should be skeptical of their ability to deliver high-quality pre-k. Even good elementary schools make lack the early childhood expertise needed to deliver a good preschool program.
Long story short: If we want all kids to be able to attend high-quality pre-k, we're gonna need more quality pre-k providers. We don't just need more funding and higher standards. We need a strategy to grow the supply of great preschools, whether by creating them from new or by identifying and replicating the most effective existing preschools.
This supply component has been notably absent from most early childhood initiatives, however. Early childhood policy tends to focus three issues: funding, quality standards, and "systems building" to bring together and align the variety of currently divergent early childhood programs. These things can help grow the supply of quality providers (funding, in particular, is critical to attract great providers). But without a supply of great providers, funding, standards, and systems alone won't change the game for kids.
However weak the political prospects for universal pre-k in the current Congress, in the long-term it's a pretty safe bet that the United State will eventually move towards universal pre-k. It's the reality in most of the developed countries that we compete with economically--and at some point we're going to need to follow their lead in order to keep up. Moreover, states are already moving this way on their own: Over the past decade, states dramatically expanded their investments in pre-k, and after a break due to the recession, Governors and legislators from both parties are starting to expand state pre-k programs once again.
The only real question is whether universal pre-k, when we get there, is going to be any good. Will it meet our aspirations of quality early learning for all kids, or will it replicate the shortcomings of our current systems of public education and child care? We don't know the answer to that question yet, but it's in our power to determine what it is. People who care about the answer to this question should start thinking now about how to build the supply of quality pre-k providers.