Obama’s Universal Preschool Plan: As Good as It Sounds?

Michelle Chen

President Obama promises to strengthen early childhood education, but will he follow through with funding?

Of all the mildly liberal, media-genic proposals that peppered President Barack Obama’s state of the Union Address, one seemed especially designed to withstand curmudgeonly criticism from the Right: universal preschool. The image of millions of young tots learning their ABCs and fingerpainting is hard to demonize as evil Big Government.

Nonetheless, Obama’s sweeping plan for the nationwide expansion of early childhood learning programs may not be as straightforward as it seems, especially for the workers who will be expected to carry out the program. The White House’s broad talking points leave open the question of whether the dramatic expansion of preschool programs will be coupled with adequate federal funding.

Plenty of empirical research shows that strong early childhood education can boost future educational development, particularly among kids facing socioeconomic barriers like poverty. But getting early education right means cultivating skilled and motivated teachers. Early childhood programs have long lacked the sustained funding to ensure that educators are equipped with pedagogical training and resources to help level the playing field” for poor kids. Exacerbating the problem, severe state budget cuts have led to deep funding deficits nationwide.

Generally, the White House’s plan—which aims to achieve common and consistent standards for quality across all programs” — does appear to promote fairer compensation and support for practitioners, including pay that is comparable to regular K-12 teachers.

But ensuring every kid in the country has a shot at a a high quality preschool program means starting earlier, with teacher training, in order to close massive gaps in the early learning workforce, which advocates say lacks the resources to maintain a well-trained, decently paid corps of educators. And that’s at current enrollment levels; unmet needs will likely soar under a universal preschool system, since currently, many eligible children are unserved because their families lack access to under-resourced public programs like Head Start. The White House’s overhaul proposal so far says little about whether Washington will reverse decades of underfunding.

If we want highly qualified staff that really understands child development and can really deliver high quality preschool, then the implementation of the proposal is definitely going to have to include some support for that workforce to be able to get those credentials and better compensation,” says Christine Johnson-Staub, an analyst with the social policy think tank CLASP.

How to nurture great early-childhood educators

From a labor perspective, the current system fails to provide real job sustainability. Early childhood educators are among the worst-paid education professionals. Unionization rates are typically low, and turnover is extremely high — especially when educators might earn far more money teaching kindergarten instead of pre-kindergarten next door. Many preschool educators are denied basic benefits that K-12 school teachers typically enjoy, such as class planning time and decent health benefits.

Advocates say that programs for early childhood development are often viewed simplistically as caregiving work, rather than as a critical part of a child’s education. That contributes to the low salaries and leads to a patchwork credentialing system and widely varying budgets. According to a 2009 analysis of the early childcare and education (ECE) workforce by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley:

U.S. society has not fully embraced ECE as a public good. As a result, more than 20 federal ECE funding and regulatory streams exist, and all 50 states have their own array of differently funded and governed programs.

Currently, the report notes, Teacher qualification standards vary widely, based on program types and funding requirements — from little or no pre-service preparation, to a BA or higher — as do the actual qualifications of the teaching corps.” 

Marcy Whitebook, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, tells Working In These Times that institutional resource gaps weigh heavily on overworked and underpaid staff. Some local early childhood programs, she says, are so bad that they kind of prevent people from applying what they know and continuing to develop on the job as teachers.”

Since so many staffers are low-income women, often from immigrant backgrounds or communities of color, investing in extra schooling can be a struggle, notes Whitebook, a former preschool teacher. While officials talk about ramping up the skills and quality of the workforce, she adds a cautious note from the viewpoint of overstressed working-class staff: If people are going to invest in raising their qualifications, they want to know that there’s going to be a pay increase in the end.”

Filling the gaps

Johnson-Staub says that the new federal initiative should build on state-led efforts to expand professional development and innovative programming in early childhood programs. In recent years, some state-level projects have made significant progress in strengthening preschool systems, but advocates are waiting to see a comprehensive national approach toward building the early learning infrastructure to accommodate the promised expansion.

There are also deeper questions about what a centralized early childhood education system means for the practice and culture of schooling. In recent years, the White House and state officials have imposed hardline reforms on K-12 schools, including standardized tests, corporate-style pedagogical models and drastic school restructuring. These initiatives have alienated teachers and devastated poor school districts. A federalized approach to early childhood education could usher in similar tensions over how programs deal equitably with the complex needs of the communities they serve.

As a policy concept, universal preschool is a beautiful idea, but on the ground, nice ideas require concrete resources for the people putting those ideas into practice. It’s unclear whether the White House will pair its push for universal preschool with material support for educators. Other federal education reform initatives have failed thus far to close glaring inequalities and funding gaps in K-12 systems.

Investments in early education are promoted as yielding high returns” later in life, but these returns are only reaped through high-quality teaching. Preschool educators deserve a return on the investment of their labor, too — that means giving them the federal support they need to do their job well, and the respect they deserve as a kid’s first, and perhaps most important, teacher.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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