Americans Say They Support Federal Dollars for Pre-K

A new Gallup poll released this morning brought good news for early education advocates: Seventy percent of Americans say they support using federal dollars to increase funding to provide universal, high-quality pre-K. That’s a startling number, given the fight early education programs have seen even to maintain funding from year to year in the face of federal belt-tightening and the sequester. But the survey could offer hope to supporters of early education programs--and to candidates in the field ahead of November’s midterm elections.

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The poll found broad support for federal funding. More than half of Republicans (53 percent) and 87 percent of Democrats, as well as 70 percent of independents surveyed, said they would support using federal dollars for such a program. Eighty-five percent of non-white respondents supported federally funded pre-K, as compared to 63 percent of white respondents.

Those figures suggest that, even though Republicans are less supportive of federally funded pre-K on the whole, there’s probably plenty of room for moderate Republicans to join the debate, particularly where they’re attempting to reach out to Hispanic and other minority voters. Maggie Severns of Politicowrote about this phenomenon last month, noting that a number of red-state governors (such as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder) have joined calls to expand pre-K. She noted that Kevin Madden, a Romney campaign adviser, found merit in the campaign policy for Republican candidates:

“Democrats have gone head-first into this economic inequality or economic opportunity argument,” Madden said. “Republicans feeling a need to engage can look at this — at the education issue and at early childhood development — as an area where they can have an impact.”
All this is indicative of a growing interest in expanding access to pre-K programs. As we noted in a recent report, Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education, “[d]oing early education right—ensuring that children have opportunities for engaged learning and interactions with well-trained teachers—will require a large investment in human capital. It is wrong to call for broad increases in quality and access without acknowledging the costs.” We recommended that states take on a larger share of the costs for pre-K over time, with additional federal funds available for other early learning efforts. And with the significant public support for pre-K that the Gallup poll confirmed, new federal and other funding sources may be more attainable than expected.

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume public support in a poll will translate to policy, or even to actual political support from voters who typically prioritize other issues above education. Aside from the political implications of an expanded federal role in providing pre-K (for example, it could fan the flames of activists who oppose an expanded federal role in anything), there are plenty of practical implications. Unlike other surveys, Gallup didn’t test how much survey respondents would support spending, and funding high-quality universal pre-K would undoubtedly cost billions more than the $8.5 billion currently spent on Head Start, the federal government’s largest early education program. And the survey also found that all categories of respondents--regardless of education, party affiliation, race, income, or family circumstances--rated pre-K as less important than K-12 and postsecondary education in determining children’s future success. That suggests that early education advocates have much more work to do in persuading Americans that high-quality early learning can create the foundation for lifelong success.

[pullquote][A]t least on principle, the vast majority of Americans want more federally funded high-quality pre-K classrooms.[/pullquote]

Nonetheless, candidates in the 2014 elections--and even presidential candidates who will surely announce their platforms in the coming year--can take heart in the fact that, at least on principle, the vast majority of Americans want more federally funded high-quality pre-K classrooms.

To read more from Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education, click here."


Clare McCann was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America.