Barack Obama poses for a photo with second graders in 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)
It was one of the most cheering propositions in the president’s State of the Union Address: “Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”
The formulation, it’s true, is redolent of the ideological timidity of the “liberalism” of our age: instead of the federal government just doing something that’s good, it sets up unwieldy, confusing funding streams to have someone else do it instead. (Political scientist Steven Teles defines this as American federalism’s “kludegocracy”: “For any particular problem we [arrive] at the most gerry-rigged [sic], opaque, and complicated response.”) But all the same it’s a great goal for a president to get behind. As Obama went on to explain, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can solve more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
The problem is, the White House might just be naïve enough to believe this is a relatively easy political sell. The breakthrough research on the payoffs to investment in “universal pre-K” was done by a Nobel Prize–winning economist named James Heckman, of the University of Chicago—and Heckman is, fundamentally, a prototypical University of Chicago economist, a neoclassicist. So it’s a “conservative,” market-based idea, right? Like cap-and-trade. Like the “individual mandate” in health insurance. So how could conservative Republicans object?
Right. You see where I’m going with this.
The president signaled that part of the sale when he noted two states that “make it a priority to educate our youngest children”: Georgia and Oklahoma. Said The New York Times, “Oklahoma and Georgia have Republican governors and were won by Mitt Romney in last year’s election. Both states have expanded their preschool programs in recent years.” So it is that Obama traveled to Georgia today to promote the plan.