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January 29, 2010

"We Need to Invest in the Skills and Education of our People"

Obama Education came in fourth on the president's list in Wednesday night's State of the Union address, but at least it made an appearance. The president made it a priority by linking it to our economic stability as a nation. Not surprisingly, this is the same argument that advocates for pre-k have made for years. Some of the strongest arguments for public pre-k have centered around the idea that under-investment in preschool is a failure of the usually reliable free market system to produce the social and economic outcomes most beneficial to the larger society.

Many economists have looked at pre-k through a cost-benefit analysis lens Heckman, Currie, and Barnett but it is important to remember that for every statistic, there is a person, and whether that person is graduating from college or being arrested, lives are at stake.

President Obama referenced the Race to the Top grants as stimulus to education reform. Higher education was the biggest piece of the education pie in his speech, but he did reference the role of education in addressing poverty when he said, "In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education." Many educators will be glad to hear that No Child Left Behind was not mentioned, but instead Obama used the formal label of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to describe the law that funds Title I, a huge piece of many states' early childhood budget.

All in all, his lead in sentence, "We need to invest in the skills and education of our people," connected education to the economy, which ensures that it will stay in the mix of the public policy debate, even if it isn't on the front burner for some policy makers. Sadly, sometimes this commodification of education bends the purposes of education from the benefit to society to the benefit to the economy. Though they are related, they aren't the same. This is how curriculum gets narrowed for the "public" good and how pre-k outcomes get focused too narrowly on producing good workers instead of good people.
 
Yet my favorite statement that the president made Wednesday reminds me of my own description of what it is like to teach pre-k:
 
"Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated."
 
This notion gives me hope because it shows the president realizes need to produce citizens who can create a better future out of the noise and chaos that is the American democratic system. What better place to start than in a pre-k classroom?

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