Universal Pre-K? Ask These Red State Republicans -- and Then Ask Grover Norquist

Joe Conason
Joe Conason has written his popular political column for The New York Observer since 1992. He served as the Manhattan Weekly's executive editor from 1992 to 1997. Since 1998, he has also written a column that…
Joe Conason

Among the biggest policy mistakes of the past 50 years is our continuing failure to provide quality early childhood education to all of America’s kids. For children, families and society as a whole, the benefits of “universal pre-K” are not only significant and well-documented, but offset the financial cost many times over. Although we’ve been aware of these basic facts since the early ’60s, most politicians have preferred to squander billions of dollars on malfunctioning weaponry, catastrophic wars and petroleum subsidies.

If this outstanding example of stupid is corrected any time soon, the nation will owe thanks to President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, both of whom have argued forcefully on behalf of quality preschool for all. Yet while the president and the mayor deserve credit for their efforts, perhaps even greater gratitude will be due to public officials in Georgia and Oklahoma — where conservative Republicans have proved the value of universal preschool programs beyond any doubt for children and families of every income level and ethnic background.

Even if there were no economic upside to starting the education of every child at 3 or 4 years of age, the obvious social benefits would be vital for any country that aspires to cultivating a vibrant democratic republic. Citizens who can read and do math (and perhaps take an interest in science!) are more likely to succeed at self-government. They are also far more likely to succeed in life.

Enhancing personal opportunity is how universal preschool generates universal public savings — estimated by a large cohort of studies to lie somewhere between $7 and $17 for every single dollar spent. Human brains mostly develop well before age 5, so children who attend quality preschool enter kindergarten with social skills, confidence and knowledge that boosts achievement for many years.

The fewer children who arrive unprepared to learn, as so many now do, the fewer who end up using extremely expensive special education programs, repeating grades, requiring remedial studies or dropping out before graduation from high school. Naturally, better school achievement means higher employment and earning potential, lower rates of arrest and incarceration, better health habits, less demand for welfare support and even lower out-of-wedlock birth rates.

Well, aren’t those the outcomes that conservatives want? So they constantly tell us. And so they ought to study Oklahoma and Georgia, two of the most conservative states in the union, where studies have indicated that universal pre-K is one of the best investments we can make.

In Oklahoma, where every child has been entitled to free preschool since 1998, a well-known study by Georgetown University educators found substantially improved cognitive skills and test scores among Tulsa students who had attended public pre-K. The program made the difference between falling below national norms and moving up to achieve them. In Georgia, first to implement universal state-funded preschool almost 20 years ago, painstaking research has likewise showed gains in math and reading that lasted through eighth grade, especially among underprivileged rural and urban children.

Neither of those deep-red states would give up its preschools now. But right-wing Republicans in Washington who reflexively scorn the Obama and de Blasio initiatives can look even closer to home — ideologically and geographically — for advice on this question.

They should ask Grover Norquist, the renowned anti-tax activist, why he sends his own toddlers to the District of Columbia’s free pre-K program, operated by the public school system, which accepts children starting at age 3. As much as Norquist despises government, he and his wife seem to believe that preschool is valuable to their kids — and as a taxpaying city resident, he is certainly entitled to its benefits. He says, “it’s not free but paid for through property and income taxes,” and notes that his children “like their teachers and the school.”

In a country where liberal Democrats have inaugurated so many of the past century’s advances, it is pleasantly ironic to see hardcore Republicans — in two states, anyway — pushing forward on early childhood development. Perhaps we can hope that their fellow conservatives someday will have the wit and wisdom to endorse universal preschool as a fiscally sound contribution to social progress. Even if it is Obama’s idea.


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