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As students go back to school and Senate goes back to session, it's time for universal pre-K

President Joe Biden can salvage the Build Back Better safety net agenda by focusing on popular priorities. Government-funded preschool should top the list.

The Senate returns Monday to try to salvage President Joe Biden's signature safety net bill, the Build Back Better Act, after Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a fellow Democrat, said he would withhold his vote. That means the Democrats lack a majority to pass the bill, but the White House is insisting it will still find ways to advance its domestic agenda.

All Americans pay taxes at the local, state and federal levels to fund the requirement that children attend school. Government-funded pre-K completely adheres to that precedent.

Instead of continuing to push the sweeping $2 trillion plan, some elected officials and policymakers are suggesting that Biden focus on a piece-by-piece strategy, which would require the administration to set priorities as it chooses which components of the Build Back Better bill to try to push through. Federal funding for universal pre-K should be at the top of the list.

Evidence shows that kids benefit from early childhood education, and more and more middle-class families depend on preschool for parents to work. But only some states have risen to the challenge of paying for early education — and, even then, only for some children.

Yet a large majority of Americans support the concept of government-funded preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Its inclusion in the Build Back Better Act has attracted opposition mostly because many Republican politicians are worried about the costs of the program and federal interference in the schools.

In spite of previous federal government intervention at critical times over issues that affect federal law and constitutional protections, like school desegregation and equal opportunity, most decisions about public education, including how to pay for it, have, for better or worse, been left to state and local governments. Many in the GOP want to ensure it stays that way.

But their allegiance to local control doesn’t obscure the fact that all Americans pay taxes at the local, state and federal levels to fund the requirement that children attend school. Government-funded pre-K completely adheres to that precedent and fits with the national consensus around the need to publicly finance education.

Although the federal government has traditionally played a small role in paying for K-12 education, contributing about 8 percent of school funding nationally, it has supported and subsidized early childhood education through programs like Head Start, established as part of the war on poverty in 1965, and through tax credits for families with low incomes. The proposed law would extend that support to all Americans, treating preschool the same as K-12 and fund it through a federal-state partnership.

This federal support would expand access to an estimated 20 million children. Wary politicians don’t seem to understand that early education will benefit children — and society — for the rest of their lives. Expanding publicly funded education to include preschool is an essential investment in the future of the country, just like education for older students.

The Founding Fathers recognized the need for universal public education to promote citizenship, but it took time for states to sign on to public schooling. Churches sponsored schools, and families hired tutors or home-schooled their children. Charities provided schooling for poor people.

It was Horace Mann who first popularized universal public education, in Massachusetts in the 1830s, advocating for common schools for children ages 6 to 14. His vision of a more cohesive society, with all social strata coming together in the same classrooms, wasn’t immediately accepted by everyone.

Gradually, however, other states stepped up, incorporating mandates for public schools into their constitutions. By 1870, 78 percent of American children attended public school. By 1930, all states had passed laws requiring public schooling, and in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act officially codified universal K-12 instruction as the national standard.

Although it took until well into the 20th century to fully open access to girls and people of color, the goal of educating all citizens advanced by the founders did indeed become the foundation of our democracy. The great majority of American children now attend school from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Support for publicly funded education is ubiquitous today. Even advocates for vouchers — seen in many places as opponents of the public school system because they siphon money away to private schools — only confirm that Americans take government funding of education as a given, even if they don’t agree about which schools should receive the funds.

Education for children under 6 has had a separate history, and kindergarten began to be available only in the late 19th century. Advocates at that time insisted that children ages 3 to 6 who weren’t yet ready for formal instruction could still learn and develop critical skills. Fighting the idea that mothers should assume primary responsibility for early childhood care, educators sought to elevate the value of learning in communal settings with trained professionals. Although today kindergarten is mandated in only 19 states and Washington, D.C., about 86 percent of 5-year-olds attend.

Ideas about children and learning in the U.S. have continued to evolve. In recent years, data about the advantages of early childhood education has accumulated, with educators and researchers arguing strongly for its social and economic benefits. They emphasize that high-quality preschool helps children acquire important social and academic skills, so they enter school better prepared to learn, and that it helps close the achievement gap between wealthy children and those in poverty.

Many developed countries have embraced these benefits, providing early childhood education at little or no cost. In Finland, for example, formal schooling doesn’t begin until age 7, but 97 percent of 3- to 6-year-olds attend publicly sponsored preschool; the achievement levels of Finnish students are the envy of educators around the world, including in the U.S.

Some states and local communities have embraced these possibilities and introduced government-funded preschool, but many haven’t. Still, as of 2019, 47 percent of American 3- and 4-year-olds attended public or private preschool.

In spite of local hesitance in some districts and regions, the path has been cleared for states to follow leaders like Vermont and Washington, D.C., in funding pre-K; the federal government, through the Build Back Better Act, is poised to play its part, as well.

It took over 100 years for Mann’s vision of taxpayer-funded public education to become the law of the land. It will take another paradigm shift to ensure that this more expansive view of public education reaches all 3- and 4-year-olds. With some encouragement, however, Americans will open their minds and hearts to preschool as we did to high school and kindergarten. Once early education is embedded in federal legislation, the concept of universal pre-K is likely to be embraced as a welcome addition to the American way of life.