The White House’s proposal to create universal prekindergarten would face enormous implementation challenges, as GOP lawmakers in at least a half-dozen states are already balking and others are likely to follow.
The plan, which is included in the social spending package that recently passed the House and is now before the Senate, would provide $110 billion in federal funding for states to offer free prekindergarten for millions of 3- and 4-year-olds across the United States.
Universal prekindergarten has the potential to become one of the most transformative education programs in the country and is considered a legacy goal for the White House. The initiative comes at a time when an unusually large number of women have dropped out of the labor force and have yet to return, in part because of pandemic forces that temporarily closed or in some cases shut down prekindergartens and day cares nationwide. Meanwhile, worker shortages have hamstrung similar programs across the country.
Yet the success of universal prekindergarten would heavily depend on whether states participated and picked up billions of dollars in additional costs. States have had a very uneven approach to implementing federal programs meant to assist Americans in the past year. Emergency housing aid was hardly disbursed in some states, for example, and in states largely led by GOP governors, enhanced federal unemployment assistance was cut off months before it would have expired.
The universal pre-K program would prove another key test of this design.
White House officials have repeatedly said their proposal would mean that all American parents could enroll their children in free pre-K. But these promises depend on state governments kicking in substantial sums on top of the new federal funds in the legislation to create or expand state programs. Partially as a result of these requirements, GOP officials have expressed deep reservations about participating in the new federal system, according to interviews with state lawmakers, conservative policy activists and other early-education experts interviewed by The Washington Post.
“Legislators in Republican-run states are expected to voice opposition to what they see as a highly flawed pre-K plan and take action to stop it,” said Patrick Gleason, vice president of state affairs for Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group working with conservative state lawmakers.
Republican lawmakers in Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina and Minnesota told The Post that they will reject or are troubled by aspects of Biden’s proposed pre-K expansion. GOP state lawmakers in Texas and Arizona have also strongly criticized the plan, according to conservative advocacy groups working closely with officials in those states.
In interviews, Republican lawmakers expressed concern about the new prekindergarten education standards that would be required for participating states, as well as the risk that funding would evaporate, leaving states scrambling to cover expensive programs.
There “absolutely is going to be opposition from Republican state lawmakers,” said Jonathan Bydlak, director of the governance program at the R Street Institute, a conservative group that advocates for free markets. “There’s a philosophical disagreement that this is not the proper role of the federal government and that this is federal meddling, similar to opposition to other education standards in the past.”
Biden’s proposal would come close to fully funding the expansion of prekindergarten programs with federal dollars only in its fourth year, counting on state governments to make up the difference in every other year. Estimates vary, but the federal government’s plan may pay less than half the costs of providing free pre-K to all children ages 3 and 4, which could make it easier for lawmakers in GOP-run states to opt out. The funding is set to expire altogether in the program’s seventh year, because Democrats have sought to reduce the overall cost of Biden’s spending plan to meet the demands of centrist lawmakers.