Thirty years ago, the national movement for universal preschool came heart-breakingly close to success. But Richard Nixon's 1971 veto of such a measure -- it "would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach" -- proved to be Washington's last word. As this window of opportunity slammed shut, the debate shifted away from securing preschool for all, focusing instead on expanding opportunities for children from poor families.
But across the country, the universal preschool movement is thriving. Unlikely champions -- among them a conservative Democratic governor, an ex–newspaper publisher, and a billionaire oilman -- have become activists. The appeal is partly altruistic (for children, it's the right thing to do) and partly hard-nosed economics (for society, it's a surefire investment in the future).
What's most surprising is that bedrock Democratic states aren't in the vanguard. Instead, the national leaders are two socially conservative southern states, Georgia and Oklahoma.
In 2002, Florida's citizens voted to join that club. David Lawrence Jr., former publisher of The Miami Herald and a longtime advocate for early-childhood programs, championed the cause. After the Florida Legislature, dominated by right-wing Republicans, twice buried universal pre-K bills, Lawrence and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas decided to appeal directly to the voters. They launched a $1.8 million campaign to convince Floridians that every child deserves a good preschool education. "I believe in universality," Lawrence says. "You'll never get to the promised land if you say it's about this or that neighborhood. The core principle is that all children need certain basics."
This high-visibility approach worked: 59 percent of Florida's electorate voted for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing "high quality," universal pre-K by fall 2005. But the amendment left the Legislature with the assignments of defining "quality" and finding the money to pay for the initiative.
Last spring, the reluctant lawmakers opted for a dumbed-down program, passing a bill that met no one's standard of excellence. "They use money as an excuse," Penelas says, "but in reality they're influenced by religious child-care providers who don't want accountability." Under considerable pressure from advocates for children's rights, Governor Jeb Bush vetoed it. Once again the matter is in legislators' hands, but they may not have the last word. "I want to retain the ability to litigate if we don't get high quality," says Lawrence. "That's what the people voted for."
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Georgia has drawn accolades for its universal pre-kindergarten program, the nation's first. In 1990, Zell Miller ran a successful gubernatorial campaign by proposing a state lottery earmarked for education, including pre-K. While the initiative was first aimed at poor children, that changed when the then-governor realized that making preschool "a program that would touch all Georgians" would boost his, as well as the program's, popularity.
By 1995, Voluntary Universal Pre-K was up and running. It survived a near-fatal attack from right-wingers who claimed it would "not tolerate religion" and would "discourage teaching methods such as learning ABCs and counting." Now, 57 percent of the state's 4-year-olds attend preschool, ranking Georgia second nationwide, and, unlike most states, it's a full-day program. "For generations, the South has followed the lead of Massachusetts and other states in innovative, forward-looking programs," boasts Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Dickerson. "With Pre-K, we're on top."
Still, Voluntary Universal Pre-K has its share of implementation snags. Enrollment has hit a plateau. Teachers are required to have only two years of college, despite research showing that teachers' education is crucially important to children's success. While the state monitors preschools, providing incentives for schools that meet higher standards, quality varies greatly. A local preschool administrator labels Pre-K a "public-relations masterpiece. I don't think it is the premium program in the country. The whole story is not numbers served; it is the quality of the services."
Georgia's problems are partly traceable to the fact that many preschools are private. It was hard to "combine [the for-profits'] business interests with our education interests," recalls Pamela Shapiro, formerly deputy director of the state's Office of School Readiness. "Four-year-olds are very profitable." Because Georgia badly needed classroom space, relying on private providers was a political and practical necessity. But private-school teachers' salaries are generally lower, and their turnover rates higher, than their public-school counterparts. Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Patti Ghezzi observes that "public schools generally do better than the chain [for-profit] providers and the mom-and-pop care places just can't compete." The fact that "mom and pops" proliferate in the poorest neighborhoods is worrisome, as those are the places where the kids need the most help.
Funding could become problematic. Relying on a lottery to pay for Voluntary Universal Pre-K was politically smart because it didn't require lawmakers to dip into tax dollars. But with Tennessee and South Carolina starting lotteries, there's concern in Georgia that its lottery will be less of a cash cow. Moreover, a growing share of lottery revenues underwrites the popular HOPE college scholarships. A new General Accounting Office report cites officials' fear that in a few years there won't be enough money to underwrite the entire Pre-K program.
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The biggest success story is Oklahoma. The Sooner State is better known for its oil billionaires, football dynasties, and religious fundamentalists than for its social conscience. Yet largely because of the behind-the-scenes efforts of passionate bureaucrats, savvy state politicians, and public-spirited business leaders, Oklahoma ranks first in the nation in the proportion of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre- kindergarten classes. What's more, those classes meet stringent national standards for quality.
In 2000, when a bill establishing a public-private partnership to promote early-childhood initiatives was introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature, political leaders predicted easy passage. The measure had an impeccable pedigree. It was proposed by a task force chaired by a prominent Republican businessman and was backed by GOP Governor Frank Keating. Besides, it seemed innocuous: The partnership didn't require public funding and had only the power of persuasion.
But the far right saw matters differently. "When I ran, I thought I was Rush Limbaugh incarnate," jokes GOP state Representative Ron Peters. But then he heard what his ultraconservative colleagues had to say. The (Oklahoma City) Daily Oklahoman assailed the measure as promoting a "nanny state." Legislators called it a "socialist plot" to take over kids' lives. One lawmaker claimed that reading makes young children go blind, and another, noting that the new partnership would promote preschool for 3-year-olds, asked rhetorically, "Why not take them away in the hospital?" Flummoxed by the opposition, Keating threatened to veto his own bill. Not until 2003, with Democrat Brad Henry in the governor's office, did the legislation become law.
Yet even as the troglodytes fumed, universal preschool was already a widespread reality. Unlike Georgia or Florida, where pre-K became front-page news, the Oklahoma strategy was to do good by stealth. In 1980, few people noticed when a pilot pre-kindergarten program crafted by Ramona Paul, now an assistant superintendent in the state's education department, was launched to serve children regardless of income. A decade later, little attention was paid when a seemingly technical change in the state's school-funding formula enabled districts to be reimbursed for educating all 4-year-olds. In 1999 another tweak, requiring districts to provide special pre-K programs rather than placing 4-year-olds in kindergarten, slipped through. "Only six people in the state understand that formula," jokes Bob Harbison, oil executive turned child-care activist, and one of them, deceptively easygoing Democratic Representative Joe Eddins, shepherded the measure.
Pre-kindergarten has quickly proved popular in Oklahoma. In 1992–93, 10 percent of all 4-year-olds were enrolled. This year, 63 percent of 4-year-olds and 509 of the state's 540 school districts are participating. "The reason early-childhood education initially caught on had nothing to do with superintendents being progressive," says a knowledgeable observer who declined to be named. The new money did the trick. "They learned how to buy jockstraps for the football team out of the formula for educating 4-year-olds," the observer says. But that attitude has changed, and now districts are spending their own money to expand preschool classes. "This isn't altruism," says Harbison. "Superintendents appreciate that investing at the front end is paying off educationally."
Oklahoma's pre-K rules are as stringent as any in the nation. There can be no more than 10 students for each teacher, 20 children and two teachers in a classroom. Teachers must have a bachelor's degree and be certified in early-childhood education. Because the program is run by the public schools, pre-K teachers earn as much as those who teach trigonometry. Moreover, educators and child-care specialists are coordinating their efforts. The state is one of very few with no waiting list for child care, and because the human-services department gives more money to day-care programs with better-qualified staff, the quality of care keeps improving.
These standards reflect a generation's worth of research on what works, and their implementation has made a measurable difference. A 2004 study by Georgetown University professors William Gormley Jr. and Deborah Phillips shows that Tulsa's pre-K program has strong positive effects on children's language and cognitive test scores. The researchers hail Oklahoma as "an example of the success with which systematic, school-based initiatives can launch 4-year-olds on a promising trajectory." State officials recognize that the program needs to be strengthened -- the biggest problem is that, for financial reasons, many districts offer only half-day pre-K and kindergarten classes -- and that's high on the political agenda. There's also talk of a universal program for 3-year-olds.
"All great public policy comes out of passionate leaders," says Nancy Von Bargen, who heads the human-services department's child-care division and is herself one of those leaders. Without Ramona Paul and Joe Eddins, it's doubtful that universal preschool would have been widely adopted in Oklahoma. Governor Henry has made education the top priority of his administration. "We're tired of being last in a lot of things in the nation," says first lady Kim Henry, a former teacher who spends most of her time promoting children's causes. "We want to do something big."
Prominent among these champions is Oklahoma oilman and banker George Kaiser. His estimated $3 billion fortune makes him America's 56th-richest man, according to Forbes magazine, and he is investing a sizeable chunk of that money in early-childhood initiatives. Kaiser thinks about these issues philosophically. "America hasn't fulfilled its social contract that everyone has an equal opportunity at birth," he says. "I've wrestled for years with how we might do something to change that -- to provide for a more mobile society." Stem-cell research prompted Kaiser to seek out interventions that start very early in a child's life. When he found an experimental program -- the Abecedarian Project -- that did so with proven long-term success, he decided to replicate it in Tulsa.
"Remember the Elvis Presley song 'In the Ghetto'?" Kaiser asks. "People, don't you understand," the lyrics go. "The child needs a helping hand / Or he'll grow to be an angry young man some day / Do we simply turn our heads / And look the other way?" Kaiser's not looking the other way. He's using his own money to leverage both public and private dollars; local foundations have signed on, and so have Head Start and the public schools. Kaiser has hired a legislative lobbyist and is underwriting teacher-education programs focused on infants and toddlers. He is committed to transforming the quality of education from birth to kindergarten -- not just in Tulsa but statewide and, eventually, beyond.
In a parallel universe, George Kaiser's vision would be national policy. It exemplifies John Dewey's wise maxim that all children receive what a wise and caring parent would provide. But these days, Washington has no stomach for bold social initiatives. That's a shame, for the federal government has potentially greater resources to tackle this challenge, and with different priorities, Washington could make universal pre-K a nationwide reality.
The good news is that the states, at least some of them, are picking up the slack. Although progress is slow and uneven -- most states still serve fewer than a fifth of their 4-year-olds -- if conservative Oklahoma and Georgia can overcome "nanny state" vitriol and make universal preschool a reality, every state can do the same.
David L. Kirp teaches at the University of California, Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. He is the author of Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education. George Willcoxon and Cindy Czerwin, graduate students at the Goldman School, provided invaluable research assistance.