If poor kids could vote, pre-K would already be funded

If poor kids could vote, pre-K would already be funded

My four-year-old can’t read yet, but she likes to pretend that she can. She grabs a treasured storybook and, using pictures as a guide, repeats the lines she remembers: “Mr. McGregor said, ‘Stop, thief!’ ” “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” is a favorite of hers.

She’ll read soon enough — probably before she starts first grade — because she is growing up in a home that confers several advantages: Her mother is middle-class and college-educated; her household is full of books; her caregivers, including her grandmother, read to her and enjoy reading for their own pleasure. Those characteristics of my daughter’s early childhood nearly guarantee her a head start.

Across the country, affluent, well-educated parents know those traits boost children’s achievement, which is why they spend time, money and effort making sure that their little ones get the educational stimuli that experts insist is critical in the first few years of life. Middle-class pre-schoolers go to “story time,” to museums, to zoos and aquariums, to well-funded pre-schools with small classes and skilled teachers.

Unfortunately, children from less-affluent households don’t usually get the same attention, the same “quality time,” the same expensive enrichment opportunities. (Let’s not get caught up in blaming single mothers. I’m one. It’s about financial resources, not family structure.) That’s why they enter first grade behind their affluent classmates and, without educational intervention, will likely fall further and further behind.

Given that economists have long argued that better-educated workers are the key to a prosperous future, it’s imperative that states start providing free high-quality pre-school programs to children from poor and working class families.  So why isn’t there broad political support for President Obama’s plan to ramp up high-quality pre-school education?

The answer is pretty simple, and it has nothing to do with research on the efficacy of pre-school programs or the budget deficit or the antediluvian worries of right-wingers who believe youngsters should be home-schooled. One overriding factor limits enthusiasm for pre-school education: four-year-olds don’t vote.

Unfortunately, even the parents of poor four-year-olds have spotty voting records. As a result, pre-schoolers from less-affluent homes don’t get the educational boost they need to compete with their more fortunate counterparts.

Decades of research have proved that high-quality pre-kindergarten classes work. Programs, such as Head Start, that haven’t stood up as well to long-term studies are inconsistent in quality. By contrast, those programs that hire well-educated teachers and put them in well-equipped classrooms with small groups of children show excellent results.

As simple as that solution is, it faces formidable political barriers, including politicians who use a newfound fiscal stinginess to argue about the costs. But when politicians complain about the money they’d have to spend for high-quality pre-school classes, what they really mean is they don’t want to spend so much on constituents who can’t reward them at the polls. You rarely hear similar complaints about spending on elderly voters, farmers or defense contractors.

Nor can politicians muster the political courage to spend just enough to provide high-quality pre-kindergarten education only for less-affluent families — those earning, say, less than $40,000 a year. A program that serves only the working-classes and the poor would get short shrift, as Head Start has. Politicians use well-funded programs to pander to the middle-class.

Just take a look at Georgia’s pre-k classes, which President Obama has touted as representing the gold standard. Started in 1992 as a pilot program for poorer children, Georgia’s pre-k program is funded by lottery proceeds. But since 1995, it has accepted four-year-olds regardless of household income.

But because of high demand, it is, by no means, available to all who want it. The program maintains a waiting list of about 10,000 students, which means some poor kids who desperately need the help wait for classroom seats right along kids who would do okay without pre-k education.

The educational achievement gap is one of the biggest reasons for growing income inequality, and one answer to that gap is an obvious one: high-quality early education. Unfortunately, our political system is at a point where it seems unable to grasp and implement simple solutions.


One Response

  1. You are right. Your four-year old will read soon enough. In your household, because of the enrichment in language/experiences/emotional support…the structure…it will happen. It was the same in my household. As an elementary teacher, happily married to a college educated professional wife, there is routine, reading, bedtimes, hugs. My three girls (14, 12, 7) are continually surprising us and others with their ability and their creativity-as well as there understanding of and compassion for others around them. Pre K probably wasn’t a necessity, but we liked having our children involved in a community of fellow learners and educators.
    We are not “affluent” but we have more than some others in the value we have in our connection to each other, our community, and the obligation to make use of the oxygen and space we use to find some way to pay the world back-not get what we can in the social and economical rat race being fertilized in the current “education reform” movement. I agree with much of what you say, but I see a theme revolving around what less affluent people need, and it feels like it’s more school. More time in school. Less summer vacation.
    I grew up with even less. I grew up loving long summers with parents who were separated since I can remember, but spanked me when I deserved it, and hugged me when I needed it…or just because. That’s what kids need.

    Education could HELP address outcomes-equity if the people enjoying the benefits of inequity weren’t driving current education reforms.

    “So let’s start by expanding the school year in poorer and working-class school districts where parents don’t expect to take long vacations. Once affluent parents see what a longer school calendar can accomplish — rising test scores and competitive college admissions — they’ll abandon the lengthy summer vacation, too.”

    *****(insert “wayne’s world” dream sequence music)*****

    A sun-blonde, sun-tanned boy of about 8 or 9 yrs old skips onto a large, covered deck with open sides and a beautiful view of the dunes and the ocean beyond. Seagulls, sun, people running on the beach…
    “Mumsy, Becca wants to know if we’ll be going to the polo fields later.”

    The mother, pouring two glasses of something cold and icy looks to the father who is reading the paper. The father, ala’ Thurston Howell with the captain’s hat and pipe says:

    “I don’t know Mitt, my boy, says here that school is having kids cut their summer short to attend class. They say it will help kids do better, and that all should consider coming back to school to improve their outcomes. Do you think we should close up the summer house and head back?”

    There is a strange smirking pause, then all three burst out laughing

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