SOTU Policy Stuff: Back to Universal Pre-K!

At various points during the day and week, I’ll probably do posts discussing some policy issues that the president raised in the State of the Union Address that deserve more attention that they are getting.

Obama’s call for a sorta-kinda commitment to universal pre-kindergarten educational opportunity was, as I noted in the last post, a real blast from the progressive past. As Sara Mead explained at her Education Week blog, it was a departure from his first-term strategy on early childhood education:

The President’s apparent embrace of universal pre-k as a goal marks a shift from his first term early childhood agenda, which was much more focused on improving childcare quality along the birth to 5 continuum. Over the past decade, there’s been a bit of a split in early childhood between advocates of universal pre-k programs designed to prepare 3- and 4-year-olds for school, and advocates who focused on improving childcare and intervention supports for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers (particularly the most disadvantaged) without a specific emphasis on pre-k. In the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton came down on the pre-k side of that divide and Barack Obama on the birth-to-five side–and that approach was largely reflected in the President’s first term, with the signature Early Learning Challenge Grant program, inclusion of Nurse Home Visiting in the Affordable Care Act, and expansion of Early Head Start. Tonight’s speech seems towards an emphasis on pre-k. If that’s correct, what changed?

On the other hand, given that tonight’s speech focused primarily on early childhood, higher education, and high school reform with no mention of waivers, teacher effectiveness, school turnaround, Common Core, or other K-12 reform issues that were central to the first term Obama education reform agenda, maybe that’s not surprising after all.

Well, Obama did give a shout-out to Race to the Top and credited it with convincing states to raise standards. But Sara’s right, the president’s education messaging is in significant flux, particularly as contrasted with the GOP’s growing consensus on “backpack vouchers” (you know, strap the federal funds on the kid’s back and let them follow him or her right into that conservative evangelical madrassa if that’s what mom and dad and Pastor Bob think best) as the answer to every education policy question.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.