Past, Present, and Future

The movement to universalize preschool education is not new. Americans have been attempting to get public support for educating our youngest children for more than 150 years. Why has it taken so long? What are the obstacles? And what do past successes suggest about promising strategies for the future?

In 1830, a petition to formally incorporate "infant schools" into the Boston Public Schools was rejected by the Primary School Committee. Opposing it, primary-school teachers said infant-school graduates were difficult to manage, while a mental-health specialist and child-rearing advice-givers argued that excessive early stimulation was damaging to children. Proponents, the women of the Infant School Society of Boston, complained that men had been insufficiently supportive of their plan.

Despite this setback, as historian Maris Vinovskis documents, many 3- and 4-year-olds in Massachusetts were attending public schools until the mid-19th century, toddling along after their older siblings, if teachers didn't protest. Their numbers declined as urban schools became more age-graded and academically standardized, and as ideology about the role of mothers and the sanctity of the private family became widespread.

When Elizabeth Peabody started the nation's first English-speaking public kindergarten in Boston in 1860, she overcame resistance by emphasizing that German kindergarten founder Friedrich Froebel's felicitous sounding "children's garden" was an appropriate place for young children, not a school. The effort lasted only a year, however, because the superintendent thought it too costly. Nearly 30 years later, the Boston Public Schools incorporated privately funded "charity" kindergartens. But as with most urban kindergartens, they were seen primarily as programs for the children of the poor.

With the goal of bringing public kindergartens to "all the nation's children," Bessie Locke founded the National Kindergarten Association (NKA) in New York City in 1909. Not a professional educator, Locke avoided the internecine conflicts within the kindergarten movement and enlisted prominent businessmen, college presidents, and education reformers like John Dewey. Taking its case to Washington, the NKA persuaded the commissioner of education to let the organization establish and fund a Kindergarten Bureau within the U.S. Bureau of Education. But when Locke's attempts to get a kindergarten bill through Congress failed, she refocused her efforts at the state level, rallying local parent-teacher organizations, church groups, and governor's wives, and waging media campaigns. Money was always an obstacle, especially in rural areas and in the South, as were state and local politics. In spite of these difficulties, Locke's efforts over four decades contributed to a 300-percent increase in the number of children nationwide attending public and private kindergartens.

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It took national emergencies to spur federal action for younger children. The Works Progress Administration sponsored Emergency Nursery Schools for 3- and 4-year-olds during the Depression, primarily as a job program for adults. Psychologists and nursery educators hoped that the public schools, where many of the programs were located, would adopt them. But as in Boston a century earlier, few public-school systems were hospitable to the idea. With the onset of World War II, new federal money was available for Children's Centers, some of which were open around the clock to care for Rosie the Riveter's kids. Once again, preschool educators hoped the programs would become permanent, but President Truman cut funding six months after the war ended.

Another perceived national emergency, the war on poverty, and new psychological research on the benefits of early education led to the founding of Head Start in 1965. As former Director Ed Zigler recounts, Head Start survived inflated expectations about raising IQ scores and resistance from some southern states over integration to become an iconic community-action program. Championed by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, Head Start benefited from large budget increases during the Clinton administration; even so, there are long waiting lists at many centers.

The closest the United States has come to getting a federal commitment to universal preschool education was Walter Mondale and John Brademas' Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which passed both houses of Congress with support from a coalition of psychologists, liberal politicians, and child-advocacy groups. But President Nixon vetoed the bill on ideological grounds, raising the specter of the "Sovietization" of the private family. As in the past, cost was a stumbling block.

Despite this frustrating record of fits and starts, evidence of the developmental benefits and cost-effectiveness of quality preschool education still mounts. And advocates have continued to press for change -- most successfully at the state and local levels, where most policy experts agree the impetus for universal preschool education must come, with hopes for increased federal funding.

States have experienced varying levels of success. As of 2002, 40 states had some manner of publicly funded preschool programs, most targeted at children from low-income families but many inching toward universal models. In fact, there has been a 17-percent increase in children attending pre-K nationwide since 2001, according to a 2004 study by the Trust for Early Education, a preschool advocacy group.

Georgia, Oklahoma, and Florida have been at the vanguard. As David Kirp details elsewhere in this issue, each of these states has pursued the goal of high-quality early education using different strategies. A decade ago, then-Governor Zell Miller launched Georgia's Voluntary Universal Pre-K initiative; by 1998, it was funding preschool for more than half of the state's 4-year-olds.

Oklahoma now offers preschool in public schools through the state education budget, thanks largely to bipartisan support and strong gubernatorial leadership. And in Florida, a unique citizens' initiative achieved passage in 2002 of a constitutional amendment requiring high-quality pre-K for every 4-year-old. That guarantee was soon eviscerated in the Florida Legislature, however, leading Governor Jeb Bush to veto the initiative -- a move supported by the original proponents. (The Legislature is being reconvened to address the quality mandate.)

Meanwhile, in a different model, court involvement in a school-finance lawsuit has mandated preschool education in underfunded districts in New Jersey.

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A survey of state and local reform efforts to date suggests that individual "policy entrepreneurs," to use political scientist John Kingdon's term, play very important roles in agitating for progress on the preschool front. In New Mexico, for example, Fred Nathan's small, "results- oriented think tank" was the force behind getting full-day kindergartens, as Anthony Raden has documented. In Florida, the passionate advocacy of former Miami Herald Publisher David Lawrence Jr. and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas has been enormously effective.

And in Massachusetts, Margaret Blood's Early Education for All campaign won commitment from the state Legislature in June for a universal preschool plan (to be phased in over 10 years). It envisions an independent early-education agency, quality controls, teacher development, and more. With high-profile media support, backing from the business community, and relentless lobbying, Blood hopes to hold the Massachusetts Legislature to its commitment. But this will require a sustainable, privately funded, independent organization -- like a state-level NKA. And much depends on Blood, whose willingness to devote long hours to the goal resembles Locke's commitment to public kindergartens, and on the strong coalition Blood has assembled.

Some cities, too, have been successful at promoting public preschools. Begun in 1967 with federal funding, Chicago's two dozen Child-Parent Centers, located in inner-city neighborhoods, are run by the Chicago Public Schools. As in Oklahoma, the teachers have college degrees and early-childhood-education credentials. Importantly, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers are part of a seamless continuum, from preschool through third grade, which provides coordination and continuity that is of great value to students and their families. And in the Boston Public Schools, the Lee Academy, a new public pilot school focusing on early literacy for 3-year-olds through third-graders, has just opened, pushed by teacher Jennifer Friedman and Harvard's Richard Weissbourd.

Still, opposition, concerns, and problems remain. Harking back to Richard Nixon's ideological stance, libertarian Darcie Ann Olsen of the Goldwater Institute opposes universal preschool education as an intrusion of the "nanny state" into the private family. Moreover, concerns continue to be voiced about the effects of stress and poor-quality programs on young children. Psychologist David Elkind worries about the "hurried," "miseducated" preschool child. Perhaps fueling these fears, the federal No Child Left Behind Act is putting pressure on preschools to become more academic and to institute testing for even the youngest children. Finally, limited funding and the low status of preschool teaching as a "women's" occupation will always be problematic. Here, economists, psychologists, and other researchers, along with college and university presidents, professors, and educators, have important roles to play in documenting the cost effectiveness of universal preschool education and providing better preparation for preschool teachers.

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What lessons does this brief overview of the history of preschool education suggest? The resistance to infant schools in Boston demonstrates that gaining support from the public schools (and even children's experts) can be difficult due to stubborn stereotypes, genuine concerns about quality, and competition from other programs. But the success of the Oklahoma initiative, Chicago's efforts, and the Lee Academy in Boston shows that gaining this support is possible with funding from outside or within, as long as other school programs aren't threatened and school personnel take initiative. To avert the worries about "schoolishness" that hurt infant schools, public-preschool advocates must find ways to deal with accountability demands and still meet young children's developmental needs, a difficult balancing act.

Another lesson involves the importance of smart, strategic advocacy. The National Kindergarten Association demonstrated the effectiveness of having a nonpartisan, single-issue organization -- think of an AARP for preschool education -- that can serve as a national clearinghouse, provide coordination, and convey a compelling message. Ruby Takanishi of the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) has been mapping the progress of preschool education nationally and commissioning and disseminating state case studies. Similarly, the Pew Charitable Trusts fund the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, directed by W. Steven Barnett, which produces an annual report card on preschool programs and publishes the latest research. Pew, the FCD, and others support the Trust for Early Education, while the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation have also actively promoted universal preschool efforts. Yet the early-education field is still plagued by enormous fragmentation, with public agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private foundations sponsoring, funding, overseeing, and running a huge range of disconnected programs and initiatives at all levels.

The success of state- and local-level kindergarten and preschool campaigns demonstrates that legislators and taxpayers are willing to vote and pay for public preschools if they perceive clear, credible benefits. Conversely, the failure of national attempts to universalize preschool suggests that education must be the perceived and central purpose, although the actual programs that children attend provide both education and child care.

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A final lesson reminds us that most successful preschool initiatives have enjoyed bipartisan support from broad-based coalitions of stakeholders from public and private sectors. Energetic, nonpartisan, politically savvy, individual policy advocates have played key roles in assembling and maintaining these coalitions, in promoting legislation, and in ensuring that programs are ultimately implemented in the interests of children.

As Bessie Locke once said, "politics are perplexing," and much hard-nosed politicking lies ahead, of the kind that makes some children's advocates uncomfortable. It took a long time to get public kindergartens for 5-year-olds, and almost half of public kindergartens are still half-day programs. Time's a wasting for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Barbara Beatty, associate professor and chair of the Education Department at Wellesley College, is the author of Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present.