The Problems With Biden’s Universal Pre-K Proposal

The Biden administration is seeking to provide publicly funded, tuition-free prekindergarten to all 3- and 4-year-olds as part of its $3.5 trillion “build back better” plan. While most education advocates laud this as a terrific thing, others have raised serious concerns. Sue Renner, the executive director of the David and Laura Merage Foundation and a member of Colorado Governor Jared Polis’ Education Policy Council and the Colorado Early Childhood Leadership Commission, recently reached out to express her concerns about Biden’s pre-K proposal. I thought it worth sharing what she had to say — see what you think.

— Rick

Rick: What is the Biden administration proposing for prekindergarten, and how would that change the pre-K landscape?

Sue: As part of his three and a half trillion-dollar social-spending plan, President Biden proposes setting aside two hundred billion dollars to provide universal prekindergarten to our nation’s three- and four-year-old children. The White House estimates this will pay for care for all three- and four-year-olds — five million of whom don’t currently have publicly funded preschool — and save the average family thirteen thousand dollars when fully implemented. At present, there are many different entities involved in early care and education for this age group: private for-profit businesses, faith-based groups, local nonprofit organizations including Head Start, and public preschools. But rather than invest in all of these entities, President Biden’s proposal risks funneling funding to preschools operated by public schools.

Rick: You’ve raised concerns about the Biden proposal. Can you talk a bit about what they are?

Sue: It was disappointing to see that the proposed new investments in universal pre-K are not in step with the realities of the existing mixed-delivery system and its many participants. Rather than force parents to choose one type of program, we should fortify the programs parents already use. I am concerned that Biden’s plan risks separating universal pre-K from the wider child-care sector, limiting parents’ choices and their access to subsidized care without fully meeting their needs. Preschool within public school settings is typically a few hours a day, a few days a week, for part of the year. But how many parents can transport their child between child care and preschool during the workday? And what about children of parents with nontraditional working hours?

Rick: How would Biden’s plan impact other areas of early-childhood education, such as child care or infant care?

Sue: A successful child-care business model needs a mix of ages to manage staffing costs for infant care. In states where pre-K is offered only in public schools, we have seen it siphon off four-year-olds from community-based child-care programs, resulting in their failure and in increased infant-care costs for parents. On the other hand, if private child-care providers were able to offer federally subsidized pre-K options, they would get a predictable source of income, bringing needed stability to these low-margin businesses.

Rick: What do you think would be better than the proposed public option?

Sue: Rather than offering either public or private options, we should offer both in a multilayered approach, including embedding preschool programs into child-care centers. For some families, twelve hours a week of public school pre-K is perfect. For others, who need child care for a whole workday, or who have a two-year-old in a different child-care center, it isn’t practical. Family, faith, and home-based providers should all be able to provide pre-K in their community, supported by federal funding. Current Early Head Start Child Care Partnerships, which pair a federal child-care subsidy seat with a Head Start seat and embed them in market-based child-care programs, are an excellent model for effectively integrating federal Head Start and child-care funding. A good example is a home-based Head Start child-care provider in Grand Junction, Colorado, that cares for the children of evening and other nontraditional-shift workers. Preschool offerings like this can deliver more daily hours of learning and extend beyond the traditional school year while also better meeting the needs of parents.

Rick: Can you tell me a bit about how such a system would actually work?

Sue: The federal government should give states the flexibility to create their own unique service-delivery plans. Essentially, states would receive an allocation of the federal funds and then select local intermediaries to manage distribution of slots to a wide range of providers, including public schools. The intermediary would be responsible for distributing slots in accordance with their unique geographic, workforce, and family needs, and be held accountable to a set of deliverables such as enrollment, attendance and — most importantly — kindergarten readiness, with funding contingent on meeting them. Giving states this flexibility also respects the plans some states already had in place for providing pre-K education, without siphoning this funding off from existing programs. For instance, in Colorado, we are in the process of establishing a new Department of Early Childhood with a soon-to-be-launched state pre-K program. We are well on the way to creating a streamlined, modern approach to early education. It would be such a shame for federal investment not to help us accelerate this work.

Rick: So, bottom line this for me — is your argument that Biden’s proposal is imperfect but still an improvement, or that it would leave us worse than we are now?

Sue: Universal pre-K, as proposed, is certainly an improvement, given what we currently have isn’t enough. Hardworking, middle-income parents can’t afford early education for their children. There must be a deeper investment in children under five. And for federal spending to be most effective, it must mirror the way parents access child care. Separating child-care and pre-K funding in Biden’s plan perpetuates the myth that they are distinct services. Instead of separating the two, it is more imminently practical to ensure that every care environment is also educationally rich. We may have a historic opportunity to design a family-centered early education system. I hope we use it to do much more than simply bolting on a year or two to public K-12.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.