The secret of political success for pre-K programs

Sharon Lerner has an outstanding article in The American Prospect on universal pre-K in Oklahoma. She highlights how Oklahoma has succeeded in providing both access for all and high-quality pre-K services. Ms. Lerner also provides a valuable brief history of Oklahoma’s program, and highlights some details of the program’s operations. (Full disclosure: she briefly mentions at the end some results on long-run earnings effects of Tulsa’s pre-K program that come from my paper with Gormley and Adelstein.)

But what I think is most noteworthy is her description and comments on why universal pre-K has been so politically successful in Oklahoma. Why has this politically conservative state been able to sustain universal access to high-quality preschool?

Part of the political success is the support from having a universal high-quality program. She quotes one school superintendent as saying that “If anyone tried to get rid of pre-K now, they’d get run out of town”.

Therefore, one lesson is that IF pre-K advocates are ever able to successfully implement high-quality preschool for all in a state, it will be much easier to politically sustain the program over time than to initially enact the program.

Ms. Lerner also argues that Oklahoma pre-K is more politically sustainable because pre-K is simply funded as part of overall K-12 funding. Pre-K is funded by the state providing local school districts with similar formula funding per student to how the state funds K-12. Local school districts then provide local property tax funds or federal Title I  funds to cover the remaining operating costs, just as school districts do for the rest of the K-12 system. (Some of this information is derived from research done by Bill Gormley for our article.)

Ms. Lerner argues that

“Building [pre-K’s] cost into the larger public-school funding formula…may be the key difference separating Oklahoma from other states…where pre-K funding was slashed during the recent recession…Pre-K is…just another grade – as unlikely to be singled out as 5th or 11th.”

I suspect this argument is true. Pre-K is more likely to be steadily funded if it is defined as part of the needed educational package for all students. This politically normalizes pre-K as a service. In addition, by including pre-K in overall K-12 funding, pre-K attracts the lobbying power of various K-12 interest groups.

However, this political argument raises two other concerns.

First, many K-12 advocates may be concerned that if pre-K is simply incorporated into K-12 funding, that local school districts will be given a mandate to provide additional services without necessarily having access to additional funding. For example, I know this is a concern in Michigan. There are currently rumored proposals in Michigan to expand pre-K funding that apparently propose to take the extra funding out of the state’s School Aid Fund, without any measures to increase revenue going into the fund. Because the state of Michigan in recent years has already made cuts in real state funding per K-12 student, and because Michigan school districts are generally forbidden to increase operating funding using local funds, the additional burden of expanded pre-K funding on local school districts is a legitimate concern.

Second, if pre-K is simply run through local school districts, many private preschool operators may be concerned that universal pre-K will drive them out of business.  Oklahoma seems to have avoided these problems, perhaps in part because the state had less of a pre-existing network of private preschool providers, and in part because school districts in Oklahoma apparently frequently contract out preschool services.

These concerns about funding pre-K through the state K-12 budget suggest two important strategies. First, pre-K advocates may need to link up with K-12 interest groups to push for measures to expand overall educational funding. Second, pre-K advocates and K-12 interest groups may need to think how expanded state funding for pre-K can somehow incorporate high-quality private providers as well as pre-K directly operated by local school districts.

In other words, successful political advocacy for pre-K requires a broad coalition, which ideally will include support from both K-12 interest groups and private preschool providers.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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