HOORAY FOR PRE-K. The vote on California's Proposition 82 -- the Rob Reiner-spearheaded initiative providing universal access to preschool for all Californians, paid for by an income tax hike on wealthy residents -- is coming up in a week. The odds are still in its favor for passage, though not overwhelmingly so. National Review pans the idea in an editorial today, calling it a "boondoggle" whose design is "blind, bloated, and indiscriminate." These obviously aren't terms I'd use to describe the idea but I think they actually (and perversely) get at some of the reasons why liberals should enthusiastically support universal preschool initiatives at the state and federal levels.
On substantive policy grounds, the social science data on the benefits of early childhood education (especially, though not exclusively, pertaining to underprivileged kids) has accumulated over several decades, and is overwhelming. This Arthur J. Reynolds op-ed in The Los Angeles Times gives a good rundown of some of the major research, which has included a few very intensive longitudinal surveys tracking the progress of individuals who had access to preschool programs. RAND released an exhaustive report touting the economic benefits of universal preschool and directly assessed Reiner's plan; elsewhere they've done assessments of efforts to ramp up preschool access in eight states. (Here in the Prospect in 2004, David Kirp reported on how such efforts, in unlikely places like Oklahoma and Georgia, developed politically.)
The opposition from National Review and other critics is usually couched in terms of the perceived wastefulness of making the program universal rather than targeted and means-tested. But the political rationale for universalism in social programs is something liberals understand all too well -- or certainly ought to. "Programs for the poor make for poor programs" is a clich� because it's true. There are, moreover, some more hard-nosed considerations, having to do with interest group politics, that ought to boost liberal enthusiasm for full-bore universal pre-k initiatives, and that also help to explain the inevitable intensity of conservative opposition: A federal universal preschool program devised correctly (something perhaps along the lines laid out (PDF) in 2002 by the Committee for Economic Development, which envisioned an array of federal stopgap supports for state-administered preschool programs at a cost of about $35 billion) could help produce a corps of unionized preschool staff and bring them into the progressive Democratic fold. This calculation is of course "cynical," if by cynical one means "building a durable politics out of substantively meritorious liberal social policy," so maybe I should apologize for bringing it up. It's also important to remember that a national preschool entitlement isn't some completely wacky new idea -- something rather close to it actually passed both the House and Senate back in the halcyon days of Richard Nixon; he vetoed this alleged bid to "Sovietize" the American family.