Opinion: Jeb Bush Swings Big on Pre-K at the Ed Summit — and Misses

The 2015 New Hampshire Education Summit: See our full coverage
Not so long ago, American political pundits were saying that public investments in pre-K are “having a moment.” Between the Obama Administration’s repeated calls for expanded federal investment in early education and Hillary Clinton’s Too Small to Fail initiative, Democrats have made high-quality pre-K increasingly central to their party’s platform. Given their party’s substantial K–12 education policy rifts, pre-K is a particularly congenial topic for Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, some Republicans have noticed pre-K’s growing political cachet. A number of GOP governors — like Michigan’s Rick Snyder — have gotten in on the act. But at the national level, high-quality pre-K hasn’t attracted much (supportive) Republican attention. (Check out Politico’s survey of the state of Republican positioning on pre-K.)
That’s why it was noteworthy when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush used last week’s New Hampshire Education Summit to turn the GOP primary conversation towards early education policy: “I think early childhood education oughta be in this conversation as well,” he said, promising the gathered reporters he was about to say something that “is gonna make news probably.”
Unfortunately (for the country, for his party, for him — take your pick), Bush mostly stumbled around the topic, making some vague references to the cost of Bill de Blasio’s pre-K expansion in New York City, jabbing at public early education programs as “another thriving business for the bureaucracies and for the unions,” and then trotting off into a few familiar, dubious GOP talking points. “Their cost is probably 3x more than ours [in Florida],” he said.
“We have … scores of [federal] programs,” said Bush, later continuing: “Some of this stuff oughta be bundled up, the block grants oughta be given, to expand these [state] programs that are totally effective, at a lower cost.” Read the full report of his appearance, and watch his full presentation:

Let’s talk a bit about why this is neither newsworthy (I’m pretty likely to be the only person writing about it any time soon) nor sufficient.

First, some of his facts are, whelp, fuzzy. Florida, said Bush, has 70 percent of its kids in literacy-based pre-K programs — “more than any state.” Fact check: the National Institute for Early Education Research actually puts the number at 80 percent. But that’s not more than any other state: Vermont enrolls 91 percent of its 4-year-olds in public pre-K. Washington, D.C. isn’t a state, but it enrolls 99 percent of its 4-year-olds (including my son) and 69 percent of its 3-year-olds. Still, because of its large population, Florida enrolls more 4-year-olds than any state not named Texas (which, admittedly for sibling rivalry reasons, might be uniquely uncomfortable for Jeb to face. I feel for the guy — I have three brothers).
What about Bush’s funding claim? Florida spends $2,238 per child in its program — though that number does not include local or federal funding — and most of its programs run for three hours a day. New York City’s UPK program runs more than twice as long each day, and costs around $10,000 per student. That is, it is triple the cost of Florida’s program…so long as you ignore that it runs twice as long and operates in a far more expensive location.
Does that longer day matter? Yes — for both kids and their families. We have considerable research showing that more time in pre-K helps students’ achievement both in the short- and long-terms. What about their families? Well, we have some evidence that full-day early education programs help parents work and advance their careers. Half-day programs don’t.
As for Bush’s block grant idea? Well, Republicans have been arguing for consolidation of federal early ed programs for a while now. And yes, if you loosen the definition of “early education program” to its breaking point, you can almost get to 50 different funding streams. But see, most of those “scores” of programs are only tangentially related to providing access to early education. The GOP usually includes stuff like the National School Lunch Program and the Department of the Interior’s Family and Child Education program.
These programs aren’t really just early education programs. In most cases, they don’t provide pre-K seats — they provide support services for children, families, and teachers who attend public early education programs. They’re the (often inadequately funded) infrastructure that supports pre-K programs. If the federal government piled all those funds together and handed them off to states in big grants, a bunch of the services that currently support public pre-K programs would vanish.
Implementing block grants would be a huge change with difficult-to-quantify consequences, but it’s hard to imagine that it would lead to meaningful cost savings. States would presumably be free to use this newly-consolidated money to design whatever sorts of early education programs they’d like, but they’d need to use large parts of their federal grants to cover the funding streams that were eliminated to make the block grants possible.
Here’s the upshot: if Republicans want to look like they care about early education too, but don’t want to spend much to prove it, they’d say things that sound a lot like Bush at the Education Summit.
In other words: Bingo! That’s probably precisely what the party wants. See, the uptick in support for high-quality early education is partly a product of an era dominated by fiscal battles and partisan gridlock. It’s a rare issue on which bipartisan cooperation seems possible. Republicans don’t want to look like they’re opposed to something with such public appeal. That would be bad politics. But pre-K’s political potency has its roots in good policy: done right, it improves children’s lives and produces long-term public savings. But it’s much easier to talk about early education’s cathartic potential than it is to actually invest the considerable resources it takes to reach that potential. (Pre-k done on the cheap just doesn’t work – check out these reports my colleagues and I recently published on the challenges facing American early education — and some ideas for delivering on its considerable promise.)
Bush said one more thing about pre-K that sort of sums up his thinking on early education. After promising he’d “make news” with his hot early ed take, Bush joked that reporters in the audience should “stop looking at their Blackberries [and] start listening now.” I had to pinch myself. Blackberries? Was this the 2008 election? Had I gone back in time? Are, erm, lolcats funny again?
Nope. Bush’s early ed tutorial was, ahem, about as lame as his tech reference. That is: familiar, a few years late, unreliable, and rapidly receding from viability. It’s not up-to-date. It doesn’t make news. Update your early ed platform, Jeb — and get yourself an iPhone.

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