By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Here’s a no-brainer: would you rather give more kids the chance to succeed in school, or give smokers access to cheaper cigarettes?
That’s what is at stake with the White House's plan for early education for all Americans. The proposal, which would make quality preschool available to all four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families (that is, families with an income of about $46,000 a year for a family of four), would be funded by a boost in taxes on cigarettes.
U.S. behind on early learning
There are countless reasons that all kids should have access to preschool; here are just a few:
- Only 3 in 10 children in the U.S. have access to quality preschool.
- Children who spend a year in quality preschool do better in reading and math and have higher executive function skills than kids who do not, research shows.
- Quality preschool is cost effective: research shows a $4 to $11 return for every $1 invested in early childhood programs for children from low-income families. The investment pays off with gains in lifelong earnings, and reduction in special education costs, crime, and welfare dependancy.
- The U.S. ranks an embarrassing 25th among nations in spending on early learning. Most major industrial countries provide more far support for preschool — including nations that routinely beat the U.S. on international proficiency tests.
So why would anyone oppose preschool for all — except, perhaps, the tobacco industry? In fact, the preschool plan could easily become the latest casualty in Washington's tedious, ongoing brawl-athon: whatever one party proposes, the other side blocks. To date, not a single Republican lawmaker is supporting the plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell explained his opposition by saying he opposes tax hikes, but it's important to note that the plan won't increase the average American's tax bill; it will boost fees on a product that causes 443,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. (Moreover, taxes on cigarettes have been shown to reduce smoking, particularly among young people.)
But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is optimistic: he told education reporters recently that he's in conversation with a number of Republicans, and is hopeful that some will ultimately back the plan. “This is a bipartisan issue,” Duncan insists. “Other nations aren’t stuck with political gridlock and dysfunction; they are investing heavily in early childhood education. I want our kids to have the same opportunities.”
Conservative support for preschool
In fact, a number of conservatives reject the notiion that increasing access to preschool is a partisan issue. Ed Source reported recently that military leaders, prominent business groups, and faith organizations, swayed by research demonstrating the value of early education, have thrown their support behind the plan.
Writing in the New York Times, Gail Collins pointed out that, even though preschool for all is a popular idea, its supporters are no match for lobbiests funded by the tobacco industry and other special interests. So — it’s up to us. Are we going to protect smokers — or give more kids a better shot at a brighter future? Follow @CMMatthiessen