The U.S. was a leader in expanding free public education. The “common school movement” of the 19th century advocated free public education through 8th grade. The “high school movement” of the late 19th and early 20th century expanded education access through 12th grade.
These initiatives were explicitly rationalized as a way to promote greater economic opportunity for all. For example, one of the leaders of the common school movement, Horace Mann, argued the following in 1848:
Nothing but universal education can counterwork [the] tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. . . . If education be equally diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions, for such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor.
The economic development argument for promoting early childhood education is therefore not a new argument. In fact, today we have more rigorous social science evidence for expanding preschool than the common school movement and the high school movement had for expanding K-12 education. Horace Mann and the other school reformers of the 19th century were operating more on the basis of anecdote, casual observation, and instinct than on what would today be regarded as rigorous scientific evidence. Yet who can doubt that America is a far different and far better country because of our past historical commitments to free public education? Early childhood education today represents a continuation of that past progress.