Education Reform

Robert Kuttner: Biden’s Universal Pre-K Should Be Part of Public Schools, Nor “Public-Private” Partnerships

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Robert Kuttner applauds Biden’s proposal for universal pre-kindergarten, while warning of the danger of allowing the program to be partially privatized. The same could be written for K-12 education. In state after state, private corporations are using their political influence to privatize public money and si err it to charters and vouchers.

Kuttner on TAP

Universal Pre-K: Will Biden Do It Right?


There is a great deal in Biden’s American Families Plan to be thankful for. In a stroke, his administration has expanded the bounds of what is politically mainstream. Assuming it can get through Congress, which is by no means certain, the devil will be in the details.

For instance, Biden proposes to spend $200 billion over a decade, or $20 billion a year, for what the White House fact sheet describes as free, universal pre-kindergarten for all three and four year olds, through “partnerships” with the states.

Ideally, these should be true public institutions—an expansion of public school kindergartens downward to younger kids, with teachers compensated accordingly, and the federal government paying the increased cost.

The details are not spelled out in the materials released so far. But reading between the lines, it looks like something more incremental and fragmented.

For instance, the administration says that pre-school teachers are required to be paid at least $15 an hour. That equals $30,000 a year for a full-time teacher. It’s certainly an improvement over what many pre-k teachers currently make, and it sounds good—until you appreciate that the median salary for kindergarten teachers is over $59,000 a year.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild and expand true public institutions. Too many of our human services, from the Affordable Care Act, to for-profit nursing homes, to day care chains, are public-private Frankensteins. Taxpayers pay the costs, but providers operate as proprietary institutions that profit-maximize by squeezing actual care and caregivers.

That, in turn, requires government to play whack-a-mole to enforce complex rules and limit the games entrepreneurs play—and government often gets outplayed. True public institutions are more transparent, more accountable, and fairer to both caregivers and clients.

Do we really want to spend another $200 billion to expand Kentucky Fried child care? Or shouldn’t we seize the moment to reclaim the public realm?

This plan does give progressives the chance to push to have this expansion done via public schools, but the result on the ground is likely to be a crazy quilt. The legislation itself should specify that these must be public institutions attached to local public school systems if the Feds are to pay the costs.

It feels almost churlish to raise any questions about Biden’s bold plans. But, in their efforts to expand human services, Democrats over the years have made too many fatal compromises that come back to haunt them. This time, dammit, if we are going to go big and bold, let’s also do it right.

~ ROBERT KUTTNERFollow Robert Kuttner on TwitterRobert Kuttner’s latest book is
The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy.

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