Universal prekindergarten has the potential to become one of the most transformative education programs in the country and is considered a legacy goal for the White House. The initiative comes at a time when an unusually large number of women have dropped out of the labor force and have yet to return, in part because of pandemic forces that temporarily closed or in some cases shut down prekindergartens and day cares nationwide. Meanwhile, worker shortages have hamstrung similar programs across the country.
Yet the success of universal prekindergarten would heavily depend on whether states participated and picked up billions of dollars in additional costs. States have had a very uneven approach to implementing federal programs meant to assist Americans in the past year. Emergency housing aid was hardly disbursed in some states, for example, and in states largely led by GOP governors, enhanced federal unemployment assistance was cut off months before it would have expired.
The universal pre-K program would prove another key test of this design.
White House officials have repeatedly said their proposal would mean that all American parents could enroll their children in free pre-K. But these promises depend on state governments kicking in substantial sums on top of the new federal funds in the legislation to create or expand state programs. Partially as a result of these requirements, GOP officials have expressed deep reservations about participating in the new federal system, according to interviews with state lawmakers, conservative policy activists and other early-education experts interviewed by The Washington Post.
“Legislators in Republican-run states are expected to voice opposition to what they see as a highly flawed pre-K plan and take action to stop it,” said Patrick Gleason, vice president of state affairs for Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group working with conservative state lawmakers.
Republican lawmakers in Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina and Minnesota told The Post that they will reject or are troubled by aspects of Biden’s proposed pre-K expansion. GOP state lawmakers in Texas and Arizona have also strongly criticized the plan, according to conservative advocacy groups working closely with officials in those states.
In interviews, Republican lawmakers expressed concern about the new prekindergarten education standards that would be required for participating states, as well as the risk that funding would evaporate, leaving states scrambling to cover expensive programs.
There “absolutely is going to be opposition from Republican state lawmakers,” said Jonathan Bydlak, director of the governance program at the R Street Institute, a conservative group that advocates for free markets. “There’s a philosophical disagreement that this is not the proper role of the federal government and that this is federal meddling, similar to opposition to other education standards in the past.”
Biden’s proposal would come close to fully funding the expansion of prekindergarten programs with federal dollars only in its fourth year, counting on state governments to make up the difference in every other year. Estimates vary, but the federal government’s plan may pay less than half the costs of providing free pre-K to all children ages 3 and 4, which could make it easier for lawmakers in GOP-run states to opt out. The funding is set to expire altogether in the program’s seventh year, because Democrats have sought to reduce the overall cost of Biden’s spending plan to meet the demands of centrist lawmakers.
“Using short-term federal funds for a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t something we are interested in here in Minnesota,” said state Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R), who runs the education committee in the GOP-controlled Senate. Chamberlain called Biden’s pre-K plan “a bait and switch on our kids’ future.” Minnesota has a small state-funded pre-K program, which had 8,100 children enrolled during the 2019-2020 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
“Paying for these programs upfront but without a plan for long-term funding would be disastrous for Minnesotans, which, unlike the federal government, must balance its budget,” Chamberlain said.
In New Hampshire, which has no state-funded pre-K, state Sen. Jeb Bradley, the Republican majority leader, said he would not support the federal preschool plan, “especially the way it’s been described, funding for six years and then it goes away.”
In North Carolina, Pat Ryan, a spokesman for state Senate leader Phil Berger (R), said in an emailed statement: “In general, we’re wary of federal policies that have drastic effects on sectors of a state’s economy, especially when those policies come with time-limited federal subsidies that create major uncertainty for state budgets in the out years.” North Carolina has had state-funded pre-K since 2001 and now serves about 1 in 4 of the state’s 4-year-olds, focusing on children from low-income households.
Advocates for universal prekindergarten said that while they had hoped to secure more funding to help states for a longer period of time, they believe the program will become so popular that it will be politically untenable for politicians to refuse to extend it. They also point to the historically bipartisan support for universal preschool, with conservative states like Oklahoma and West Virginia establishing leading programs.
Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the House’s Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement to The Post that the plan represents a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Democratic state officials in Colorado, New Mexico, New Jersey and elsewhere also extolled the Biden proposal, saying it would dramatically help them make needed investments to expand pre-K access or achieve universal coverage.
“Every state that participates in this program will find that the benefits for children, parents, and the economy far outweigh the cost,” Scott said.
Policy experts said the bill would still amount to one of the biggest expansions in federal funding for early-childhood education in U.S. history, creating long-term benefits for parents, children and the economy overall.
The legislation also includes provisions intended to create a backstop in case states chose not to participate in the program. The bill would provide funding for the federal government to fund pre-K expansion through local governments or by expanding existing Head Start programs, although it is unclear how many local agencies would participate.
“I really wish the bill went out past 2027, but I’d say that a lot can happen in these few years,” said Rasheed Malik, director of early-childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “It will be a much bigger political risk six years down the line to let this lapse than it is for states and elected members of Congress to encourage everyone to build the system up while we have the opportunity now.”
The Biden administration has made sweeping claims about its pre-K proposal in recent days that appear at odds with the likely reality of GOP resistance.
Speaking in Detroit this month, Biden said, “We’re going to make sure that every 3- and 4-year-old in America has access to quality preschool.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in late October that the Build Back Better bill would “make pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds universal and free.”
“Just one provision in BBB: universal preschool,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on Twitter this month. “For the first time in decades we are adding two years to universal education. Think about it. We are going from 12 to 14 years of free universal public education.”
In an interview earlier this month, three administration officials declined to guarantee that passing the Build Back Better plan would create free and universal pre-K.
“As it cuts many of the biggest costs facing middle class families, the Build Back Better economic growth agenda will make one of the best, most life-changing investments in American competitiveness imaginable: providing for universal, free pre-K across the country,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. Bates added: “If some Republicans try to steal that choice from parents — especially as China is outpacing us in this area — they will have to look their constituents in the eye and explain why their spite over the end of tax giveaways for the rich was worth denying their children a better life, and their communities a stronger economy."
Part of the challenge facing the administration is how to build out the existing patchwork of state pre-K programs.
Currently, all but six states offer some form of state-funded prekindergarten instruction, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. But these programs tend to kick in around age 4 and don’t serve as broad a swath of children as the Biden plan aims to.
For instance, only Vermont and the District of Columbia currently offer pre-K to more than half of 3-year-olds, whereas the Biden plan aims to serve all 3- and 4-year-olds. The president’s plan would also require states to implement new standards for what children learn in the classroom, upgrade credentials for hiring new preschool instructors and mandate higher teacher pay than most states do currently, said Laura Bornfreund, an education policy expert at New America, a think tank.
These requirements could provide fodder for conservative opposition, particularly when combined with an uncertain federal funding stream to support the changes. State Republicans are also considered unlikely to be interested in supporting a key initiative of the opposition party’s president, particularly as controversies surrounding federal involvement in education emerge as a defining feature of state and local elections, such as the Virginia gubernatorial race.
“Unlike the federal government, Missouri, and virtually every other state, must balance its budget every year,” said Missouri state Sen. Dave Schatz, a Republican and president pro tem of the Missouri Senate, in a statement provided by a spokesman. “Any new federal program that would require Missouri taxpayers to cover the costs is not only a non-starter, but it would also take away precious resources from our own priorities like higher education, workforce development, and public safety.”
Initially, the White House proposed a $200 billion investment in pre-K as part of its plan released this past spring. But as the overall plan shrank dramatically to accommodate the demands of centrist lawmakers, Democrats narrowed their spending ambitions for early-childhood education as well.
As currently proposed in the bill, states would be required to fund a major portion of the expansion in all but the fourth year of the program. Matt Bruenig, founder of the People’s Policy Project, said Democrats’ plan provides enough money in the first three years to fund free pre-K spots for less than 8 percent of eligible children, while leaving the remaining cost to state and local governments.
Even Democratic lawmakers have expressed some concerns about the Biden plan’s fiscal implications for states.
“It may be the intent of the feds to reauthorize in 2028, but no one can count on what isn’t yet,” said Washington state Sen. Claire Wilson (D), who led recent state efforts to expand access to preschool. “We would as a state have to really make sure we were able to sustain the system once that funding is terminated.”
Oregon Rep. Tina Kotek (D), speaker of the state House, said in a statement provided by a spokesman that she is “excited” about the Biden administration’s efforts and that universal pre-K “would fill a critical gap to support our kids’ futures.”
But, she added, she has concerns about the proposed seven-year timeline.
“It will take time to build up a universal pre-K program due to workforce needs, the development of facility space, and licensing and credentialing of new providers,” she said. “A longer-term federal investment would be critical to making this game-changing investment sustainable and available for families after the start-up phase.”