Why Universal Pre-K Will Be a Galvanizing Issue

At the Plum Line today, Greg Sargent argues that universal pre-K opportunities will bids fair to become “a central pillar of the liberal agenda — one that, if it is ever realized, could take its place alongside some of the great progressive reforms of the 20th Century, and possibly the Affordable Care Act, as a defining achievement of the Democratic Party.” He explains that Senate Democrats, led by Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, are about to roll out a bill that would create a $30 billion block grant for states that committed to create a real pre-K system–financed by new rules radically restricting the revenues lost to “corporate inversions” that reclassify multinational corporate income as foreign-earned.

While Casey is talking optimistically about getting Republicans to support his bill, it’s not very likely, for reasons that actually make this a powerful partisan differentiator for 2016 and beyond. As Jonathan Chait noted in an important piece on this topic back in February, the whole idea of universal pre-K reflects a crucial social change:

Our society is still constructed as if most households still consist of a working father and a stay-at-home mother, even though that old model has mostly disappeared. The costs of caring for children too young to attend public school is overwhelming for working-class and even middle-class parents. Because many parents can hardly afford decent child care on their incomes, huge swaths of the system are horrifying and even dangerous nightmares, as Jonathan Cohn documented two years ago. Parents are forced to stash their children in understaffed and frequently unsafe facilities.

Conceived of this way, America’s child-care problem is a humanitarian disaster. It requires public subsidy because most parents cannot adequately finance their own child-care needs, just as Social Security came into existence because most Americans could not adequately provide for their own retirement. If society expects parents to work, it ought to make it possible to do so while raising children, which is a thing we want and need to happen. And this moral-justice logic is a strong enough rationale on its own.

Pre-k also, of course, has an educational rationale, and via education, an additional economic rationale beyond the contributions to the workforce of women.

But for these very reasons, Republicans are largely disabled from supporting or even competing with universal pre-K proposals. Conservatives are equivocal at best about the shift of women into the workforce at the “expense” of child-rearing. They are also equivocal at best about public education, and on top of everything else, equivocal at best about the economic value of labor as opposed to capital (it would be interesting, for example, to press them as to whether they think a combination of more productive women and better-educated children would offset the economic value of “job-creators” getting to keep a higher percentage of income via corporate inversions).

So this pretty much confines Republicans to two camps: those who resist any sort of new tax subsidy for parents that comes at the expense of the all–important corporate and upper-income tax cuts; and those (mostly the self-identified Reformicons) who favor a super-charged child tax credit that does not discriminate between child care and stay-at-home parenting, and isn’t linked to any educational program (must not discriminate against home-schoolers!).

And so this new liberal “welfare state” goal is only “new” because it reflects a huge change in the work and family life of people in our society, and is hardly a “welfare state” item insofar as it’s provided through the states, who are very likely to rely heavily on private entities to supply the child care and educational services. But because they dare not “go there,” Republicans are likely to oppose the whole thing as an example of “cradle to grave socialism” and a horrifying innovation–just as they’ve opposed Obamacare as horrifying even those it represents the most conservative, private-sector-oriented way to achieve a liberal goal that’s been around since Harry Truman talked about it in 1948.

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.