Preschool Can Be Great. Universal Pre-K Schemes Are Something Else.

Last week, a couple hundred “nonprofit organizations, business leaders, and women’s advocates” took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to quixotically insist that Congress pass the (very, very dead) Build Back Better Act. Tellingly, the ad led with the ever-popular demand that Congress enact “universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.”

It made sense to lead with preschool. Heck, it may be the piece of Build Back Better that Sen. Joe Manchin most consistently embraced last fall. And it’s easy to understand why. Good, reliable child care is crucial for harried parents of young kids, especially in an age when aunts, uncles, and grandparents are less likely to live nearby. It empowers moms who want to work, an issue that’s taken on added urgency as COVID-fueled disruptions have driven more than 1 million mothers out of the workforce. And good pre-K schooling can make a big difference for some kids. Reliable, trusted, convenient preschool is a terrific thing.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough for today’s Democrats, who’ve sought to turn pre-K into a sacrament. Having concluded that the existing web of preschool options is too uneven, that some providers don’t pay caretakers enough, that some centers are affiliated with churches that hang fast to pre-woke doctrines, and that the whole system is just, well, too damn messy, they’ve set out to remake the world of preschool in the image of K-12 public schooling.

They dream of a vision of universal preschool that deemphasizes or displaces today’s web of mom-and-pops, church-sponsored offerings, and the rest in favor of something that looks more like Bill de Blasio’s signature mayoral accomplishment—effectively tacking an extra grade on the front end of New York City’s expensive, unionized public school system. De Blasio’s model has undercut small, community-based or charter providers, which receive $9,800 per pupil even as the school district’s preschool programs get two to three times that amount, while putting pre-K on a K-12 calendar, subjecting it to the vagaries of union contracts and school closures, and moving kids out of neighborhood settings and into school buildings.

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