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Partisan Divide Detected on Early-Childhood Education

The Republican presidential candidates don't get along on much, as we will see again tonight during their fourth debate, airing on Fox Business Channel Nov. 10. 

However, one topic they could agree on is early childhood education, which at the state level has been embraced by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. And advocacy organizations such as the First Five Years Fund have done much to promote the idea that early-childhood education is a bipartisan issue.

At the national level, however, bipartisanship breaks down, according to Erica Greenberg, a research associate at the Urban Institute. As part of Greenberg's graduate school work, she conducted a survey of preferences for government-funded preschool in 2013 and found that Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to favor cuts in preschool spending.

According to her findings, 31 percent of Republicans wanted to see a decrease in public preschool spending, compared to 5 percent of Democrats. (Most Republicans surveyed, 48 percent, felt that current spending levels were fine. In comparison, most Democrats, 57 percent, wanted to see more money going to public preschool.)

Universal, tuition-free preschool found just about equal support among Republicans and Democrats in the survey. But once Greenberg introduced the idea of a fee for higher-income families, support dropped: 21 percent of Republicans favored such a program, compared to 42 percent of Democrats. 

"Public preschool is a more partisan issue than has been previously acknowledged," Greenberg said.

Data Illustrates Wariness of Federal Role in Early Childhood

The partisan divide appears to be driven by Republicans' distrust of federal involvement, her research suggests. Republicans like public preschool programs that they control. This played out recently in Indiana. Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, supported a state-funded pilot program, but balked at allowing the state to apply for federal money aimed at helping states expand prekindergarten. 

"More federal dollars do not necessarily equal success, especially when those dollars come with requirements and conditions that will not help—and may even hinder—running a successful program of our own making," Pence said by way of explanation. 

At this point, the Republican candidates have been silent on expanded preschool; my unsurprising prediction is that this will not change after the Fox Business Channel debate. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, two candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, have favored expansion. 

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