Early Start: Preschool Politics in the United States

Early Start: Preschool Politics in the United States

by Andrew Karch


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ISBN-13: 9780472035885
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 04/30/2014
Pages: 284
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrew Karch is Arleen C. Carlson Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota.

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Early Start

Preschool Politics in the United States

By Andrew Karch

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 the University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11872-4


Early Childhood Policy and the American Welfare State

Scholars have long been captivated by the distinctive features of the American welfare state. One recent focus has been the pronounced role of the private sector in the pursuit of social policy objectives. The American welfare state is a divided one in which many of the duties carried out by governments elsewhere are left in the hands of the private sector. Various tax subsidies and regulations encourage private actors, such as employers, to provide benefits like health insurance and pensions (Hacker 2002, 7). As a result, the American economy is characterized by a "comparatively high level of private-sector spending upon health, education, and savings for old age" (R. Rose 1989, 113). The private sector plays a large role in early childhood policy. Of the 4,835,000 American children who attended nursery school in 2010, 2,059,000 (42.6 percent) were enrolled in private schools. Private enrollment outnumbered public enrollment for most of the late twentieth century. As late as 1999, the majority of children in nursery school attended private institutions.

Most public early childhood programs in the United States are targeted initiatives that serve children who are from low-income families or who are considered disadvantaged. Dozens of public programs at the national and state levels are compensatory rather than universal. The decentralization of these government programs highlights the role of state governments as an important locus of decision making. State governments are "integral to almost all means-tested and some social insurance programs" (Howard 1999, 424), yet their impact is often overlooked. A complete understanding of American social policy necessitates attention to both private-sector activity and state politics. Conventional explanations of welfare state development offer limited insight into these two defining features of contemporary early childhood policy. This chapter reviews their strengths and weaknesses before turning to the analytical advantages of a developmental perspective that treats policymaking as a long-term causal chain. Critical junctures, venue shopping, and policy feedback help explain the current structure and politics of preschool education in the United States.

Conventional Explanations: Political Culture, Interest Groups, and Institutions

Education policy is difficult to categorize. Some scholars describe investments in education as developmental initiatives designed to spur economic activity, noting that they rank among the best predictors of economic growth and productivity (Peterson 1995, 65). Others focus on the distributive implications of education spending, arguing that "skills and education are at the core of the welfare state" (Iversen and Stephens 2008, 602). Both arguments contain a grain of truth. Education spending is related to economic performance, but it is also a free public service that can have redistributive consequences.

The overlapping objectives of educational programs help explain why this policy sector has long fit uneasily into comparative scholarship on social policy. One pioneering study concluded that "education is special" and excluded it from its study of the welfare state (Wilensky 1975, 3). The status of education policy represents a particular challenge for scholars interested in the United States. The American welfare state has been called "underdeveloped" and "incomplete" (Orloff 1988, 37), yet the country created the most comprehensive system of public schooling in the world (Tyack and Cuban 1995). This section reviews three prominent explanations of welfare state development. While each of them offers insight into early childhood policy in the United States, none provides a complete and convincing account.

Political Culture

Cultural accounts attribute policy outcomes to societal values and beliefs about the operation and justification of government. Values like individualism and an emphasis on private property and the free market cause Americans to place a greater emphasis on personal responsibility than on collective responsibility. Americans believe that hard work and personal effort are the keys to success. They view government as wasteful and inefficient and as something that should be used in emergency situations only. The distinctive structure of American social policy might therefore be attributed to Americans' core beliefs about the justification and operation of government. According to one cultural account, "[T]he state plays a more limited role in America than elsewhere because Americans, more than other people, want it to play a limited role" (King 1973, 418).

Values like individualism and limited government intervention seem especially resonant in the context of early childhood policy. They imply that child-rearing practices should remain the private province of parents, and they suggest that government involvement is appropriate only when families are in crisis. Indeed, opponents of public investment often caution against government encroachment on parental prerogatives and argue that parents' educational choices should generally be free from either direct or indirect state interference (Cobb 1992; Gilles 1996). In the early 1970s, for example, one critic of child development legislation asserted that "autonomy of decision making must be an essential part of any child care arrangement ... because it is right and just that Americans control their own lives" (Rothman 1973, 42). The primary strength of cultural accounts is their ability to account for these ubiquitous rhetorical claims.

The cultural explanation of American early childhood education is problematic for several reasons. Values like individualism and equality can be interpreted in different ways that are not necessarily consistent with one another (Verba and Orren 1985). The state is the major supplier of education in the United States, and one cultural account attributes this outcome to the triumph of equality over other cherished American values like limited government. Education was portrayed as the great equalizer, and the state only competed with private institutions in a very small way (King 1973, 420). Contemporary analyses of public opinion suggest that large majorities of Americans view education as a government responsibility and favor greater spending on it (Howard 2007, 113). A comprehensive system of public education represents a challenge for the cultural perspective.

In addition, the connection between broad ideals and concrete policy solutions is often tenuous. The outcome with which this book is concerned is a complex amalgamation of national, state, and local government programs supplemented by private-sector service providers. Furthermore, governmental initiatives like Head Start and state prekindergarten programs directly provide education and care for young children. Other programs, including the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, provide indirect support to the private sector. The mechanism linking values like autonomy to this wide-ranging public-sector activity remains opaque. Political culture connotes deep and enduring beliefs about the proper role and scope of government. It is difficult to link those beliefs to concrete outcomes.

Another weakness of cultural accounts is their inability to explain policy change or its timing. The deep and enduring beliefs that make up a political culture are not susceptible to change. Cultural accounts are therefore "too holistic and essentialist to give us the explanatory leverage we need to account for variations in the fate of different social policies, or for changes over time in the fate of similar proposals" (Skocpol 1992, 17). They struggle to explain both the existence of an extensive public system of elementary and secondary education and the complicated mixture of public and private programs that exist in preschool education. Values and beliefs provide limited analytical leverage over new directions in policymaking or the emergence of new issues on the political agenda.

Finally, political culture cannot explain the near passage of the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, a foundational moment in American early childhood policy. Both supporters and opponents viewed the bill as a step toward the creation of a permanent national framework for the universal provision of preschool services, and it received bipartisan support in both houses of Congress before being vetoed by President Richard Nixon. The congressional endorsement suggests that deep-seated beliefs about the proper role of government are insufficient to account for outcomes in this policy arena. One historian explains, "That Congress could be convinced to accept legislation even hinting at altering many of the strongest and most fervently held values about the role of government and the family was remarkable" (McCathren 1981, 120). In sum, while supporters and opponents of public investment frame their arguments in terms of equality and autonomy, respectively, the value content of their arguments cannot explain the fate of various proposals to expand the governmental role in early childhood policy.

Interest Groups

Interest group activity may help explain the contemporary fragmentation of early childhood policy in the United States. Specifically, the respective political strength of advocates and opponents of governmental intervention may account for the absence of a permanent national framework for the universal provision of preschool services. The nominal beneficiaries of early childhood programs are "children [who] don't vote; thus, their political cause has always been weak" (Grubb 1987, 1). In 1975, Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN) explained, "There is something about the politics of children we have yet to solve; maybe it's very simple. A friend of mine, a very conservative one, once said, 'You know, you should do more for old people and forget these kids, they can't vote,' and maybe that's the answer."

Several observers describe the absence of a strong, cohesive children's lobby as important. Jule Sugarman, who directed the Office of Child Development during the Nixon administration, explained, "I think the advocates for children have never been organized in a way to sustain public pressure, and that is why children do get short-shrifted in this country." Longtime advocate Marian Wright Edelman concurred, "Kids have been outside the political process and they've not had the kind of systematic advocacy that's required of any group in this country that's going to have any chance of anything." The interest groups that lobby on behalf of young children and their families tend to be small organizations that compete with one another, such as the liberal Children's Defense Fund and the conservative Family Research Council.

A lack of unity among advocates of government intervention has exacerbated their political weakness. They have been described as a "divided constituency" (Michel 1999). For example, they have long disagreed about the appropriate content of early childhood programs. The split in the early twentieth century between educational and custodial programs has evolved into a conflict between the communities concerned with elementary school and early childhood education, over purposes, methods, and control (Grubb 1987). Constituencies who share the goal of expanding access to preschool services often work at cross-purposes, taking different sides on proposals that attempt to serve this objective.

The coalition opposing government intervention, in contrast, has been more cohesive. The mid-1970s marked the beginning of a conservative resurgence in American politics. Ambitious initiatives in early childhood policy offended economic and social conservatives, who derided them as an undesirable expansion of the public sector and governmental interference in the family. Opponents viewed themselves as defending the prerogatives of stay-at-home mothers and the general principle of parental choice in all matters of child rearing (Morgan 2006). Their grassroots mobilization efforts sparked an avalanche of letters to Congress in the 1970s, and they continue to be active on matters of gender and family issues.

Interest group activity is an important part of preschool politics in the United States, but it is important not to overstate its significance as a causal factor. Even in the absence of a unified coalition, advocates of increased public investment have achieved several important victories over the past four decades. National programs like Head Start and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit have grown significantly since the 1970s, and enrollment in and funding of state prekindergarten programs expanded dramatically in the 2000s. Much of this recent activity occurred at the state level. Interest group accounts struggle to explain why leading innovators in this policy arena include such conservative states as Georgia and Oklahoma.

Furthermore, congressional passage of the Comprehensive Child Development Act suggests that, despite their lack of unity, supporters of increased public investment were sufficiently effective to move an ambitious piece of legislation through Congress. A coalition headed by Marian Wright Edelman was instrumental in drafting the proposal and formulating the legislative strategy that resulted in its passage. Although Nixon vetoed the bill, the content of the legislation and its passage represented a major break with the past. The veto predated the political mobilization of social conservatives. In fact, it contributed to their activation. It is therefore problematic to attribute the veto to interest group politics.

Interest groups affect the formation of public policy, but public policies also affect the positions that groups take and the strategies they employ. Supporters of increased public investment adjusted their interests, objectives, and political strategies as mothers of young children entered the workforce, preschool attendance soared, and public policies addressed these trends. Reformers accommodated their institutional and policy context, leading to shifting fault lines within the community concerned with early childhood education. The creation and expansion of various initiatives gave them distinct turf to defend. Supporters sometimes critiqued expansive proposals out of the concern that they would divert resources from their preferred program. Even limited government intervention in early childhood policy facilitated the organization and empowerment of constituencies with a stake in the status quo and fostered the fragmentation of the preschool coalition. As subsequent chapters of this book will demonstrate, this lack of unity among advocates is better characterized as an outgrowth of public policies than as their cause.


Institutional accounts attribute policy outcomes to the constitutional structure that mediates societal demands. They focus on the extent to which this structure centralizes decision-making authority. The American political system is noteworthy for its decentralization, which provides opponents of policy initiatives with multiple opportunities to block them. Opponents can defeat proposals at any of these veto points, whereas supporters must clear every hurdle if their proposal is to become law. In political systems with a large number of veto points, like the United States, the potential for policy change decreases (Tsebelis 1995). This institutional arrangement affords defenders of the status quo "a multiplicity of access points at which [they] can modify or exercise a veto over policy change" (Thomas 1975, 232). Due to their decentralizing impact, the core features of the American political system have been described as "inimical to welfare state expansion" (Huber, Ragin, and Stephens 1993, 721).

Federalism, the balance of policymaking authority between the national government and the states, seems especially crucial in the context of education policy. Education periodically becomes a national issue, but "policy talk and policy action have taken place mostly at the state and local levels" (Tyack and Cuban 1995, 43). The vast majority of the cost of public education is paid out of state and local budgets, and local school boards and state departments of education exercise considerable discretion. One might trace the contemporary fragmentation of American early childhood policy to the decentralization of decision-making authority in the United States, placing special emphasis on federalism.


Excerpted from Early Start by Andrew Karch. Copyright © 2013 the University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Preschool Puzzle 1

1 Early Childhood Policy and the American Welfare State 16

2 Historical Precedents and Forces for Change 33

3 A Watershed Episode: The Comprehensive Child Development Act 59

4 Venue Shopping, Federalism, and the Role of the States 86

5 Congressional Activity and the Dissolving Early Childhood Coalition 106

6 Policy Stability and Political Change in the 1980s 135

7 The Congressional Heritage of a Critical Juncture 155

8 The Contemporary Preschool Movement in the States 175

Conclusion: The Future of Preschool Politics 200

A Note on Archival Sources 211

Notes 213

Bibliography 253

Index 263

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