Universal prekindergarten sounds like a good thing. Early education for all! Why not? Anything for the kids.
Universal pre-k already exists—or is close to existing—in a number of states, including Oklahoma, Florida, and, most recently, New York. And given the appeal of the idea, it’s no wonder "preschool for all" emerged as a key talking point this election season, a year or so after President Barack Obama proposed a $75 billion federal universal pre-k program that involves partnerships with states.
The promise of universal pre-k figured prominently in the 2014 campaigns of gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania and Maryland, among others. In Hawaii, an ultimately unsuccessful ballot initiative that would’ve amended the state’s constitution to allow the government to contract with private preschool providers—and eventually implement a universal pre-k system—was described, repeatedly, as a "yes brainer."
But is universal pre-k truly the panacea that politicians and advocates, including Obama, make it out to be? Not quite, researchers say—although it does, as they point out, make for an effective political tool.
In fact, Ron Haskins, a preschool expert who co-directs the Center on Children and Families at the left-leaning Brookings Institute, went as far as calling universal pre-k "a very bad idea." Based on common sense alone, every young child should, ideally, have access to quality early-learning experiences before kindergarten, regardless of whether that kid’s family can afford it. Preschool can cost as much as $1,000 a month; sometimes it costs even more. Daycare, for its part, costs more on average than college in most states. The high cost helps explain why more than half of the country’s 3- and 4-year-olds miss out on preschool.