Who Supports Universal Pre-K? - Early Learning Nation

Who Supports Universal Pre-K?

A Look at 2020 Presidential Candidates

Preschool students build a structure with various interlocking pieces.
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Need a primer on Universal Pre-K? See below for a quick look from First Five Years Fund

If the candidates running for president are a reliable indicator, support for universal pre-K—at least in concept—is popular. Of course, what federal action that support might bring is anyone’s guess.

“Everybody says they’re going to do it,” says economist W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, exaggerating a bit. “But are they really going to do it, and do they understand what that means? I’m not sure that all of them do.”

At least 26 candidates — 24 Democrats and two Republicans, including President Donald Trump — are running for their respective party’s nomination for president in 2020. To see which of the candidates have spoken out on universal pre-K—that is, providing universal access to pre-kindergarten to at least 4-year-olds, if not younger children—we checked news reports and the candidates’ campaign websites.

We found that most of the Democrats back it. Details on their positions are often lacking; but, to be fair, it’s still early in the campaign.

“There is no question this is really popular with the public,” Barnett says. “The question is, after the election, do the candidates pivot, and their plan is a bunch of stuff that appeals to a variety of interest groups yet most of the money doesn’t end up going to universal preschool.”

For universal pre-K to succeed, he added, “it needs to be a part of public education and not made available only to low-income families.”

Charles Joughin, communications director for the First Five Years Fund, which advocates for health and education programs for children up to age 5, offers a bit of a different take.

Joughin argues that “children are born learning, so any campaign policy platform should incorporate plans for the care and education of kids from birth through age five – particularly those living in poverty.

“If we want to ensure all children have access to high-quality early childhood education,” he adds, “there must be strong support and partnerships from the federal government to extend the reach or fill in the gaps of state efforts and innovation.”

Where presidential candidates stand who have spoken out on, or have a record on, universal pre-K:

Cory Booker Supports universal preschool.
Steve Bullock With the Montana Legislature, established as governor the state’s first public pre-K.
Joe Biden Has backed universal pre-K.
Pete Buttigieg Has praised movement toward universal pre-K.
Julian Castro Proposes creating a national, federally funded prekindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Expanding prekindergarten, whose students have shown improvement in cognition and test scores, was arguably Castro’s signature mark as mayor of San Antonio, where he convinced voters to fund early education programs through part of the city’s sales tax.

Bill de Blasio One of his biggest accomplishments as mayor of New York City was universal pre-K for 4-year-olds, which has been rated high for quality. The New York Times has called the program “the most salient achievement of his mayoralty.”
John Delaney Says pre-K should be “guaranteed,” notes that while in Congress, he has introduced a bill that would provide every 4-year-old child “guaranteed access to a free pre-k program, fully paid for by a surtax on high income earners of 1.5% on income over $500,000.”
Kirsten Gillibrand Proposes a “Family Bill of Rights” that includes a right to universal pre-K. Has introduced legislation to expand access to pre-K programs.
Kamala Harris Has called for a universal pre-K system.
John Hickenlooper Touts that he “expanded pre-K to every 4-year-old” while governor of Colorado.
Beto O’Rourke Supports universal pre-K.
Bernie Sanders Says “we must guarantee” universal pre-kindergarten “for every child.”
Elizabeth Warren Proposes something different: universal child care. It would create a network of government-funded care centers with employees paid comparably to public-school teachers.
Marianne Williamson Supports “universal preschool for all children.”
Andrew Yang Supports “early childhood education (pre-kindergarten) for all.”
Primer on universal pre-K

From First Five Years Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for health and education programs for children up to age 5:

  • Pre-K is generally used to reference a classroom-based program for children in the year(s) immediately before they enter kindergarten. States and communities have created pre-K opportunities for 4- and sometimes 3-year-old children – often as part of their public K-12 systems –although pre-K can also be private.
  • Sometimes “universal” is interpreted to mean compulsory, but it actually refers to universal access – that every family who wants it should have voluntary access to the pre-K program in their district or community, with no enrollment caps.
  • No state has compulsory pre-K for 4-year-olds and very few are able to say they offer universal access. Most states leverage substantial federal funding, including Head Start, that is required to be used to create early childhood learning slots for children from low-income families.


Article: Washington Post: “Motherhood was once a campaign liability. The 2020 female candidates are making it an asset”

Article: Education Week: “Want to Know Where 2020 Democratic Contenders Stand on Education? Don’t Look at Their Websites”

Video: Early Learning Nation interview with Lovely Warren, who convened an Early Childhood Council shortly after taking office as mayor of Rochester, N.Y.

Video: Early Learning Nation interview about early childhood education with

JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable

Milwaukee journalist Tom Kertscher was a 35-year newspaper reporter, finishing that career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Now a freelance writer, his work includes fact-checking for PolitiFact and sports reporting for the Associated Press. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in Making a Murderer. Kertscher is the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.

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