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Sanders Details Pitch for Free, Universal Prekindergarten in New Plan

By Evie Blad — February 24, 2020 3 min read
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Calling access to early-childhood education and child care in the United States an “international embarrassment,” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pledged Monday that his administration would fund free, universal prekindergarten that would be administered at the local level, adding more detail to his earlier commitments on the issue.

The Independent Vermont senator, a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, embedded that pledge in a child-care and early-education plan that also calls for ensuring that lead pre-K teachers “are paid no less than similarly qualified kindergarten teachers,” and makes similar commitments to ensure higher pay and minimum qualifications for childcare workers.

Expanding access to early childhood education and care could help address wealth inequality, Sanders said, because the current system leaves many families struggling to afford programs and leaves many workers underpaid.

The plan is part of an ambitious series of proposals that would dramatically expand public programs. Introducing new taxes for the top 0.1 percent of income earners, would allow the federal government to spend "$1.5 trillion over the next decade on guaranteeing free, universal, quality child care and early education for all,” the Sanders plan says.

“In the 21st century, a free public education system that goes from kindergarten through high school is no longer good enough,” the plan says. “We will guarantee a quality education, from child care through college, as a right to all.”

Sanders’ pledges join those of some fellow Democratic candidates, such as billionaire Tom Steyer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttiegieg, who’ve also proposed expanding access to early-childhood education. Former Vice President Joe Biden has said school districts could expand early-education offerings after his administration triples Title I funding for students from low-income households. (Steyer, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren have also pledged to triple or quadruple Title I, but they have suggested other means of funding pre-K expansions).

Sanders’ plan would provide “full-day, full-week” prekindergarten programs for all children starting at age 3. It provides few details about issues like whether the program would be implemented gradually or rolled out all at once, how the federal government would fund local efforts, and precisely which existing providers would qualify to participate in the program. Other candidates have floated ideas like grants to expand existing state efforts.

The Sanders proposal also calls for:

  • New federal standards for the treatment of children with disabilities in child-care settings and expanded funding for research on supporting children with disabilities and complex medical needs.
  • Federal guidance to assist teachers in addressing the early-literacy needs of students with disabilities.
  • Unspecified infrastructure funding for preschools and early child-care centers.
  • Doubling the number of prekindergarten teachers, which would raise the nationwide total to 2.6 million from 1.3 million. The proposal doesn’t detail any steps the Sanders administration would take to achieve such an expansion beyond his proposals for tuition-free higher education and increased teacher pay.
  • Expanding federal funding for early home-visiting programs, a proposal Biden has also emphasized.
  • Providing guaranteed child care for all children ages birth to 3, regardless of family income. This would be accomplished by providing funding to state and tribal governments to administer programs delivered by schools and local child-care providers, the plan says.

Photo: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the National Education Association’s forum for presidential candidates July 5 in Houston. --David J. Phillip/AP