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August 29, 2008

A Call to Service for McCain

Ed. note: Inside Pre-K "blogger emeritus" Sophia Pappas—who was inspired to public service by John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and later became a pre-k teacher—sent in this post from her new perch at Harvard's Kennedy School.

When is John McCain going to tell Americans what he would do to make quality pre-kindergarten accessible to all families?

McCain adviser Virginia Walden Ford, guestblogging at Eduwonk this week, gave the McCain campaign's most substantial nod yet to early childhood education, but the bar had been set pretty low.  She wrote:

John McCain believes a child’s education begins at day one, and the schools and centers that support early learning must be nothing less than excellent. Attention must be focused on providing access to high quality care and education in all programs serving our youngest children with particular emphasis on high quality preschool for low-income students.

Just as we have focused our attention for the past decade on the quality of K-12, McCain will look to create the same information and database for our early care and school readiness programs.

Statements like these raise hopes that McCain will offer a proposal to invest more federal dollars in quality pre-k.  Perhaps his running mate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, will encourage him to do so.  Federal pre-k incentives could help Alaska start a state-funded pre-k program, and Palin has proposed increasing her state's investment in Head Start.

But, if the advice of a running mate cannot convince McCain, the smart politics of backing voluntary pre-k for all should.

With decades of studies demonstrating its lasting benefits for children and its return of up to $7 for each dollar invested, high-quality pre-k would align well with McCain’s themes of reform and efficient, effective government spending.  Data released in June from an ongoing pre-k study in Tulsa, Oklahoma, show that children enrolled in the state’s pre-k-for-all program made substantial gains in early literacy and math skills, regardless of their family background.  Remarkably, in measures of pre-reading and pre-writing skills, low-income children in state-funded pre-k improved more than their peers in nearby federal Head Start centers, who also achieved impressive gains. 

Pre-k also fits well with McCain’s broad education framework of innovation, choice, and accountability.  At its core, pre-k empowers parents to provide their children with rich educational and social experiences during the most critical period of brain development. States are building voluntary programs that let families choose from a wide range of pre-k providers, including public schools, Head Start centers, community-based child care, and in some states faith-based institutions.

And it can’t be overlooked that that voters want the federal government to do more to ensure that children are ready to learn and thrive when they enter school.  Nationally, nearly seven in 10 voters—and an equal proportion of “swing voters”—favor a proposed federal incentive grant to help states make quality and access enhancements in their pre-k programs.  In New Jersey, a state McCain intends to target, 68% of all voters—and 67% of Independents—support state-funded pre-k for all. Furthermore, a strong pre-k proposal could also help blunt the Obama campaign’s strategy in the South.  Voters there are more enthusiastic backers of a federal pre-k grant, and Obama’s game plan in the region relies on winning vast numbers of votes from African Americans and Latinos, groups in which nine in 10 approve of a federal pre-k investment.

Finally, a strong statement on pre-k would put McCain in good company within his party.  States as different as Alabama, California, Connecticut, and Minnesota have seen Republican governors embrace publicly funded early childhood education and work with Democrats to pass funding increases.  Bipartisanship on pre-k is catching in Congress, too.  In June, five Republican members of the House Education and Labor Committee joined their Democratic colleagues to approve the Providing Resources Early for Kids Act, which would establish a federal-state pre-k partnership through an incentive grant of half a billion dollars.

By unveiling a pre-k proposal, Sen. McCain could ensure more than an applause line.  He could ally himself with the research, his party’s most forward-thinking education reformers, and crucial segments of the electorate.  Most importantly, perhaps, he could change the education debate in this election cycle from a retread of ideas from the last eight years to a vibrant dialogue about the new frontiers in education, showing voters that he has the judgment to embrace what works.

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