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Commentary By Max Eden

Red States Lead the Way on Pre-K

Education, Education Pre K-12, Pre K-12

This piece is the third installment of a guest-blog series by Max Eden for the Education Week blog, Rick Hess Straight Up

This spring, I attended a private gathering of high-profile early education experts and advocates. When one woman introduced herself as "the person who goes out and tries to talk to Republicans about this stuff," she received nods of surprise and, it seemed, of sympathy. 

“After all, Republican resistance to federal pre-K expansion is more about the federal part than the pre-K part.”

This rather solidified an impression I gathered from the general tone and tenor of blog posts and reports that education advocates seem to assume that Democrats are their natural allies and Republicans are their opponents.

Now, if my impression is correct, it would make a lot of sense. After all, ask a Democrat about Head Start and he'll say it should be expanded; ask a Republican and he'll say it doesn't work. President Obama made a federal pre-K expansion a non-negotiable for the Every Student Succeeds Act; Congressional Republicans fought to minimize its scope. Hillary Clinton is calling for universal pre-K; Donald Trump hasn't dwelt much on it.

But outside the Beltway, the story is quite different. After all, Republican resistance to federal pre-K expansion is more about the federal part than the pre-K part. In education, especially early education, how well you do it is really what matters. Republicans are skeptical that programs initiated and managed by federal bureaucrats will be of high-quality, and think the key to doing something well is doing it locally, letting communities and states lead.

And when it comes to state spending and enrollment, pre-K advocates might be surprised to learn that Red States come out rather ahead of Blue States.

My colleague Nicholas Archer and I pulled data from the last six years of the National Institute for Early Education Research's "Annual State Pre-K Reports," and NASBO's State Expenditure Report. This is an admittedly crude analysis (focusing simply on political leadership and spending/enrollment misses a raft of variables, not the least changes in demographics). But we thought the results were interesting enough to share: 

Vice President Joe Biden famously said, "Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget and Iwill tell you what you value." By Uncle Joe's standard, Republicans value early education more than Democrats at the state level. 

Democratic states spend more per pupil than Republican states. But Republican states enroll a larger share of four-year-olds than Democratic states. 

For this analysis, we looked at the political composition of state government (i.e., possession of the senate, house, and governorship), and its effect on and the annual change in enrollment and per pupil spending. On average, one-party Republican control was associated with greater increases in per pupil spending and in enrollment. (Though, it must be noted that a major part of the story in one-party Democratic states is demographic; the average percentage of four-year-olds enrolled increased in those states even as the overall number decreased.)

Republican governors post greater gains on enrollment and per-pupil spending. Democratic governors, though, do have an edge on average on absolute annual spending increases, in part because Democratic states with greater enrollment tended to have higher spending per child.


Some readers may look at this data and conclude that it proves that Republicans in Congress are extremely out of touch with their constituents, and that they need to get with the program and get on board with more federal programs and spending.

“Democratic states spend more per pupil than Republican states. But Republican states enroll a larger share of four-year-olds than Democratic states. ”

Yet it says just the opposite: that congressional Republicans are right to hold the line against new federal programs and investments. Overall state spending on pre-K has increased by nearly 300 percent in the past 15 years, and state Republicans have been leading the charge.

A significant federal initiative could endanger the progress being made in the states. It certainly could raise overall spending and enrollment numbers, but there's great reason to worry that it would expand and entrench low-quality programs. As Vanderbilt University professor Dale Farran pointed out last month in an incisive Brookings Institute report, federal investment "primarily supports a dramatic increase in the number of prekindergarten classrooms housed in public elementary schools." Her study of the Tennessee's pre-K program, which showed negative long term effects (perhaps because kids spent more than half of their time in transition or whole-group instruction), casts doubt on the prudence of that approach.

Early education is far too important for the federal government to get it wrong all-at-once and once-and-for-all. It would be much better to let the states experiment, evaluate, share-knowledge, and expand the programs they think are best tailored to their kids. Analysts would do well to soft-pedal the intellectually slipshod talking points that pre-K is "proven" to "work," and turn their attention to more in-depth analyses of state programs. (The Learning Policy Institute deserves great credit on this score for their report: "The Road to High Quality Early Learning: Lessons from the States.")

And advocates would do well to draft fewer moralistic blogposts about the need for more federal spending, and follow that brave woman's lead by getting out into the states and talking to some Republicans. 

This piece originally appeared on the Education Week blog, 'Rick Hess Straight Up'


Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

This piece originally appeared in Education Week