The Looming Fight Over Obama's Pre-K Plan: It's Not Just About the Money

President Barack Obama looks through a magnifying glass during a learning game at a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Hei
President Barack Obama looks through a magnifying glass during a learning game at a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The president is traveling to promote his economic and educational plan that he highlighted in his State of the Union address. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

On a recent Daily Show segment (comically titled, "Kindergarten STOP"), Jon Stewart poked fun at politicians and commentators who oppose President Obama's pre-kindergarten proposal because of its cost and questions about its effectiveness.

Money is a huge issue. So is effectiveness. Providing high-quality pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds will be expensive, but it's worth it. Studies of the Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers show that preschool is a good investment that produces long-term benefits. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman confirmed these findings in a 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research report that preschool supporters love to quote.

Others contest the data, however, arguing based on a 2012 federal Head Start Impact study that many gains fade by Third Grade. As Stewart rebutted, the study showed that other important benefits lasted. The obvious solution, he said, was to extend the enhanced education Head Start children receive through the early grades, and I agree. If only preschool advocates could agree on how to define high-quality standards.

There is a less discussed fight looming within the ranks of early childhood educators themselves, and it's over more than money and preschool effects. It's about the kind of preschool education President Obama is proposing. The fight is embedded in a much larger battle over whether the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that mandated state curriculum standards and testing to narrow achievement gaps has narrowed curricula, reduced teacher autonomy, and hurt public education in other ways. Diane Ravitch makes this argument in her best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Some educators now worry that Obama's pressure on states to adopt the new national Common Core State Standards that mandate academic content and accompanying tests -- which win points in U. S. Department of Education Race to the Top grant applications -- will harm young children. Members of the Alliance for Childhood, Defending the Early Years, and others protest that forcing what they see as developmentally inappropriate academic content onto five-year-olds will turn kindergarten into the new First Grade. Teaching and testing academic skills will be pushed down even further, into pre-kindergarten. Already on the wane, time for unstructured "free" play from which children thrive educationally and learn important social lessons about cooperation and sharing, values necessary for citizens in a democracy, may almost disappear.

Curriculum designer E.D. Hirsch, Jr., whose Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence stress academic subjects, counters that academically challenging early education standards and tests are needed, especially for poor children, many of whom are behind in vocabulary and other pre-reading skills before they enter kindergarten. Common cultural literacy, another requisite for democracy Hirsch argues, depends on equalizing early learning. Hostile barbs from both sides have appeared in op-eds, online blogs, and other media outlets.

President Obama's pre-kindergarten plan has the potential to exacerbate this already bitter controversy. In language reminiscent of No Child Left Behind, the White House Fact Sheet on "Obama's Plan for Early Education for all Americans" states that to receive federal funds, states will have to "meet quality benchmarks." The benchmarks include "State-level standards for early learning;" "comprehensive data and assessment systems;" "rigorous curriculum;" "evaluation and review of programs;" and the creation of "a cohesive and well-aligned system."

Digging in for a long fight, some educators are beginning to talk about constructing new standards for young children. Otherwise, many preschools, already desperate for funding, may be forced to choose between taking money they need and academic teaching and testing they think will damage young children's development and play. To see some of the positive effects of playful learning, watch the HBO documentary Kindergarten.

The ancient debate over play versus early literacy, which goes back centuries to at least Rousseau running through John Dewey's progressive education, has resurfaced, with a vengeance. In an age in which rationales for education are increasingly based on global economic competitiveness, will it be possible to reach a compromise that meets the individual developmental and educational needs of young children and garners the political support necessary to win increased federal funding for preschool education? Stay tuned.