- - Monday, September 21, 2015

Back-to-school season this year coincides with the real start of the 2016 political season, which means we’ve been hearing even more than usual about one of the left’s pet policies, universal pre-K. But while progressives are usually happy to demand a new entitlement, notice what far fewer are willing to support: charter pre-K programs in the mold of the charter schools that have been so successful in elementary and secondary education.

Indeed, many states make it difficult, some even impossible, to establish charter pre-kindergarten programs. In July, a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that nine states have policies blocking charter pre-K. In 13 other states, there are 10 charter elementary schools for every one charter pre-kindergarten school.

In 2013, Education Secretary Arne Duncan advocated for even more federal pre-K spending, saying that we “can’t reach the number of children we’re trying to reach without a significant new investment.” But a federal takeover of state pre-K programs — along with billions of dollars in federal money — would be exactly the wrong approach. By opening existing state and local funds for pre-K to the charter sector, we could significantly expand competition in these states while improving quality and access.

If the priority of those on the left is really to promote access to pre-K programs — rather than to direct more taxpayer money to a key constituency, the public school teachers’ unions — they should make this reform a priority and work with Republicans at the state and local level to offer parents more choice in their children’s education. Charter pre-K programs are a rare opportunity for both sides to come together.

The need for competition in pre-K programs is certainly apparent. The current system of free, federally funded preschool is Head Start — a program that, for 40 years, has produced mixed results at best. Yet some, like Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, want to double down on Head Start by spending an additional $30 billion on the program. The Senate rightly rejected that approach this year on a vote of 52-45.

Instead, of pouring more federal money into a bureaucracy that has demonstrated a lack of persistent long-term benefits, we need to expand access and scale successful programs without propping up past failures. By creating competition, opening state and local funds to charter pre-schools would do just that.

As Katharine Stevens, a research fellow in early childhood education at the American Enterprise Institute, has noted, some past experiments in preschool education have shown promise for children from poor communities, but because of the extraordinary expense and high levels of home intervention they’ve required, it would be very difficult to replicate them with quality on a large scale.

Since their inception, the purpose of charter schools has been to offer more choices for families to educate their children, and to improve all schools through competition. And indeed, where they’ve been allowed to flourish, that’s exactly what they’ve done. Charter schools in Washington, D.C., for example, outperform their traditional public school counterparts by leaps and bounds for students of all backgrounds.

By removing laws that ban charter pre-kindergarten programs, children could have access to these kind of results even earlier. More seats would be open for students to attend preschool. And, as charters open, they would compete to better serve our children and families.

With pre-K education poised to become a significant issue in the 2016 elections, parents should ask candidates for offices from the local school board to the presidency: Do they support a pre-K reform that promises better outcomes, for more students?

Marissa Blankenship is an intern at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and a senior at the Ohio State University.

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