David Brooks likes what he hears so far from the Obama administration about its universal pre-K plan:
Obama is trying to significantly increase the number of kids with access to early education. The White House will come up with a dedicated revenue stream that will fund early education projects without adding to the deficit. These federal dollars will be used to match state spending, giving states, many of whom want to move aggressively, further incentive to expand and create programs.
But Washington’s main role will be to measure outcomes, not determine the way states design their operations. Washington will insist that states establish good assessment tools. They will insist that pre-K efforts align with the K-12 system. But beyond that, states will have a lot of latitude.
All that is reassuring. But Reihan Salam offers several cautionary notes, the most critical — at least to me — of which concerns the funding mechanism of a government matching grant. The incentive will be to maximize the grant rather than find the most-cost effective way to educate kids. Salam: “This pot of money will attract intense interest from public employee unions, which will insist that early childhood teachers be certified and unionized, lest uncertified, non-union teachers pose a danger to young children. Given the number of children involved, there will be scare stories that will occur in pre-K facilities, whether unionized or not.”
The alternative: Something more akin to Race to Top where states are eligible for temporary federal funding if they develop and implement innovative pre-K programs. Again, Salam: “This is far more stringent, yet it would force states to demonstrate that these pre-K programs are valuable enough that they’d be willing to fund them independently. Moreover, states would have to show not just that they can cook up elaborate plans to submit to the federal Department of Education, but that they can actually implement real-world projects.” That is fine at far as it goes. But the RTT states have been notorious for overpromising and underdelivering. I am sure there are plenty of lessons to be learned from RTT’s problems that could be applied to this new Obama initiative.