PRE-K EDUCATION

The state of 4-year-olds

 

collins.blogs.nytimes.com/

One of the big moments of the State of the Union address was President Barack Obama’s call for “high-quality preschool” for 4-year-olds.

Nobody was happier at the idea than Walter Mondale, the former vice president.

“This is going to be wonderful,” he said in a phone conversation. His delight was sort of inspiring. If I had been down the road Mondale has traveled, my mood would have been a little darker.

In 1971, when he was a senator, Mondale led the congressional drive to make quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it. Everybody. The federal government would set standards and provide backup services like meals and medical and dental checkups. Tuition would depend on the family’s ability to pay.

And it passed! Then Richard Nixon vetoed it, claiming Congress was proposing “communal approaches to child rearing.” Now, 42 years later, working parents of every economic level scramble madly to find quality programs for their preschoolers, while the waiting lines for poor families looking for subsidized programs stretch on into infinity.

And Obama is trying, against great odds, to do something for 4-year-olds.

People, think about this for a minute. We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.

Would it be different if all the children born over the past 40 years had been given access to top-quality early education — programs that not only kept them safe while their parents worked but gave them the language and reasoning skills that wealthy families pass on as a matter of course?

We’ll never know.

Mondale’s Comprehensive Child Development Act was a bipartisan bill, which passed 63-17 in the Senate. It was an entitlement, and, if it had become law, it would have been one entitlement for little children in a world where most of the money goes to the elderly.

“We came up with a lot of proposals, but the one we were most excited about was early childhood education. Everything we learned firmed up the view this really works,” Mondale said.

The destruction of his bill was one of the earliest victories of the new right.

“The federal government should not be in the business of raising America’s children. It was a political and ideological ideal of great importance,” Pat Buchanan once told me.

He was working at the White House when the bill reached Nixon’s desk, and he helped write the veto message. He spoke about this achievement with great pride.

The saga of the demise of the Comprehensive Child Development Act is an excellent explanation of why Obama was prepared to go through so much political trauma to pass health care reform, even when many of his own party members were begging him to drop back, do something less earth-shaking and wait for a better moment.

The better moment might never come.

After Gerald Ford became president, the early childhood education bill’s supporters tried to resurrect the plan. They had hardly done anything besides agree that they probably ought to wait until after the 1976 election, when they were hit with a political tsunami. Members of Congress started getting hundreds and hundreds — sometimes thousands and thousands — of hysterical letters accusing them of plotting to destroy the American family.

This was before constituent email, when that kind of outpouring was shocking, particularly since a number of the writers seemed to believe that Congress was plotting to allow children to organize labor unions and sue their parents for making them do chores.

“That was really the beginning of the Tea Party. The right wing started to turn on this thing viciously,” Mondale said. “They said it was a socialist scheme. They were really pounding the members of Congress, and a lot of people got cold feet.”

Nobody really knew where it was all coming from. A reporter for The Houston Chronicle traced the hysteria back to a man in Kansas who had written the leaflet, based on information he’d received from a revival in Missouri, which he told the reporter he had since learned was almost all completely wrong.

But that was it. Later, people would begin proposing modest preschool programs, particularly for the offspring of poor women who were required to work after the repeal of welfare entitlements in the Clinton years. But there would never again be a serious attempt to guarantee all American families access to quality early education and after-school programs.

The president proposes doing something for 4-year-olds. This is a great idea. Mondale is certainly enthusiastic. But still.

© 2013 New York Times News Service

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
FERRÉ

    ZUNZUNEO

    U.S. has a history of encouraging free expression

    If it comes from the United States it must be bad. That is the conclusion some critics of ZunZuneo, the U.S.-sponsored Twitter-like platform that the Obama administration promoted in Cuba to disseminate information and encourage personal communications on the island.

  •  
The ring of Bishop Agustín Román.

    SPIRITUAL JOURNEYS

    The bishop’s ring

    One evening two years ago, Bishop Agustín Román limited his supper to a handful of grapes. Urged by Father Fabio Arango to eat a healthy diet he answered that he felt no appetite. As was his custom, he helped his fellow priest wash and dry the dishes at the rectory. Then it was time for him to teach the evening catechism classes at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, a routine that he had carried out with apostolic zeal since 1968.

  • CHILD WELFARE

    Solutions must go deep

    For the past 23 years, I have worked in Florida’s child-protection system as a front-line case manager, investigator, supervisor, manager, policy director, deputy and district administrator.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category