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Opinion
Early Childhood Opinion

Pre-K Is Not An Alternative to Education Reform

By Sara Mead — December 07, 2010 3 min read

Kevin Carey has a great post on the problems with pre-k panacea-ism that you should read in its entirety, but the short version is that we should be highly skeptical of arguments that posit pre-k as an alternative to K-12 reform, because delivering high-quality pre-k at scale requires grappling with an overcoming the same challenges of building effective systems of public education delivery that are at the heart of K-12 reform debates.

I’d go a step further and argue that this is true when it comes to any of the services or supports that devotees of the “broader, bolder” camp in education policy debates argue we need to provide to children in order to improve education outcomes. I largely agree that American kids need access to adequate health care, healthy food, quality childcare, a child welfare system that isn’t a shameful disaster, and good afterschool and youth development programs.

But it ain’t like we can magically put these things in place by fiat and it’s only an excessive devotion to school reform that’s keeping us from doing so.

Delivering quality public services for children, of any sort, at scale is HARD, and getting to quality at scale in some of these services--particularly health care and child welfare services--is probably a lot harder than fixing the K-12 system.

Sure, lack of public resources is a real issue in some of these areas, in a way it isn’t necessarily in K-12, and if I had my druthers our society would stop viewing kids as a luxury item that parents shouldn’t have if they can’t afford them and start viewing the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens and future adults as a common moral obligation worth investing in. But I sadly don’t have a magic fairy wand to make that change in people’s views, and given current state and federal fiscal conditions and political climates, massive new investments in children are about as likely as me getting that fairy want.

And even if we did have adequate public funding to serve kids well in all these areas, we’d still have to build effective systems for delivering those services, build the supply of high-quality talent to work with kids in these areas, etc--which more money alone wouldn’t guarantee, as numerous examples in the K-12 system offer abundant evidence.

If anything, if you believe we need to deliver much higher quality public services to kids in a wide range of areas, you should start by wanting to make the public education system as effective as possible because it’s the one area where we already do have a broad public consensus on shared societal obligation to kids, where there’s an acceptance that public services agencies will daily touch the lives of most kids and families in a way they do nowhere else, and where there are significant resources in place. If we can’t get that system will all those features working well first, how the devil does anyone expect us to be able to do so in the other areas that make up the broader, bolder agenda?

In fairness, and getting back to the arguments in Kevin’s post, I think there are ways in which building effective delivery systems for high-quality publicly funded pre-k is both harder and easier than in K-12. As I wrote last week, pre-k doesn’t have some of the established and dysfunctional (or simply mismatched to current needs) systems and structures in place that currently impede improvement and greater productivity in K-12. And because a lot of pre-k systems would need to be built from the ground up, it may in fact be easier to build them right from the start than to reform an entrenched K-12 system with its associated interests. On the flip side, though, building pre-k systems is going to require convincing the public and policymakers to direct significant new resources to “other people’s kids,” which is really hard--although the pre-k movement has made some noteworthy progress here. And it’s not like there are no entrenched interests or systems that stand in the way of greater productivity in any of these sectors: there’s the Head Start system in pre-k; there are coalitions of mom- and pop- and community-based childcare providers including many of dubious quality; there are health care interests; and so forth.

Delivering public services kids need is hard no matter what sector you do it in and shifting focus from education to health, welfare, or childcare doesn’t change hte core questions or challenges and if anything makes the task harder rather than easier.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.