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Questions About CAP's Federal Pre-K Proposal

Last week, the Center for American Progress published a brief white paper calling for major new federal investments in Universal Pre-k and childcare.

Specifically, CAP called for a major new federal program to match state expenditures on universal pre-k programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. The programs would be free for families up to 200% of poverty, with parents paying on a sliding scale above that, and would be required to meet certain quality standards. Estimated 10-year federal cost of $98.4 billion.

CAP also calls for a significant increase in federal child care spending for children ages 0-3, to double access to subsidized childcare for low-income children and to increase subsidy levels to be more competive with market rates. To receive funds, states would be required to match increased spending at a $1 to $3 rate and to implement quality standards and quality rating and improvement systems. CAP also wants to expand access to the federal Early Head Start program.

CAP's proposals are perfectly fine ideas, but not exactly groundbreaking: The pre-k proposal is remarkably similar to previous proposals for federal support for Universal pre-k, including proposals offered by Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, and this paper I wrote for the Progressive Policy Institute in 2004.

There are two reasons this proposal has been floating around for a while: First, it's a largely sensible policy approach to bringing the U.S. somewhere near the vast majority of its OECD peers in terms of offering access to quality early childhood education for most children--something it's ridiculous a country of our wealth largely lacks. Second, it's never been able to get anything remotely like the political traction needed to go anywhere.

Now, it's possible this is changing--the Obama administration has indicated it wants to make pre-k a big education priority going forward. But we also live in a climate where both the President and Congressional leaders emphasize the need for fiscal discipline, and where there are real prospects for cuts, rather than expansions, of key early childhood programs in upcoming budget debates. And even if they feds do appropriate significant new funds for early childhood programs (again, a big if), it's not at all clear that very many states would be able or willing to pony up state matching funds that CAP's proposal calls for--particularly given that many states are still struggling with relatively weak fiscal conditions and that many have cut early childhood spending in recent years. (Of course, low state take-up rates would also significantly lower federal costs.)

Of course, this is largely neither here nor there--the point of proposals like these is to put a stake in the ground supporting a large expansion in pre-k access, a significant federal role in doing so, a federal-state partnership in early childhood education, and an approach to early childhood that leverages a range of existing providers in both the school and community-based sectors. All that's good, and having an organization with CAP's profile positioned squarely in favor of these things is good, too. I'd just like to also have more of a conversation about the gigantic gaping chasm between here and there and some interim steps (both advocacy and policy) to help bridge it.

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