WASHINGTON — We interrupt this highly partisan and ideological moment with some contrarian news: President Obama is not the only politician who thinks that expanding access to pre-kindergarten is a good investment.
In Alabama, Republican governor Robert Bentley urged a 60-percent increase in preschool funding in his state, with the goal of having a universal preschool system in place within 10 years. “I truly believe by allowing greater access to a voluntary pre-K education,” Bentley declared earlier this month in his State of the State message, “we will change the lives of children in Alabama.” The state Bentley leads is not a notoriously liberal place.
In Michigan, Republican governor Rick Snyder just proposed a large increase in preschool funding — from $109 million this fiscal year to $174 million in 2014 and $239 million in 2015.
Nobody should pretend that the president has found in pre-K education the key that will unlock bipartisanship. Right out of the box, Andrew J. Coulson of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom told The New York Times that Obama’s plan “just doesn’t make any sense” while Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, sounded a skeptical note in saying the president “needs to explain how this program will be different.”
But by today’s partisan standards, Kline’s comment was remarkably restrained. So it’s worth pausing to wonder if we might slowly be opening an era when Republicans will be feeling a little less pressure to mouth Tea Party attacks on government and more incentive to say that they, too, want to solve problems that concern the vast majority of Americans.
In pushing universal pre-K, Obama made a shrewd choice in both political and policy terms. There are enough studies to show that early-childhood education programs make a real difference, which is why Republicans such as Snyder and Bentley embrace them. And Obama is structuring his initiative to work with the states to build on what many of them are already doing, or would like to do.
This beachhead of cooperation might also serve as a reminder to Republicans that the idea of politics as all ideology, all the time is a relatively recent invention. Education reform was a thoroughly bipartisan cause in the 1980s. Governors such as Democrats Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Richard Riley in South Carolina, and Republican Lamar Alexander in Tennessee teamed up to push for higher standards. Alexander, who is now in the Senate, was willing to raise taxes to finance his education initiatives.