Is Arne Duncan Serious about Preschool…or Not?

Lyndsey Layton’s wonderful—and wonderfully revealing—front-page Washington Post article is today’s must read (“Duncan’s mission: Sell preschool plan to GOP”). But if you’re like me, it will leave you scratching your head—if not pulling out your hair.

This is the Administration’s plan to get an enormous new social entitlement through Congress? Stage events with GOP governors and urge them to pressure Congressional Republicans into passing a tobacco tax? They can’t possibly be that naïve, can they?

In classic Team Obama style, Duncan explains resistance to his boss’s plan as Congressional dysfunction. Yet Republican members of Congress are “functioning” just at they’re supposed to. They promised voters that they would rein in spending, limit the size of government, and keep taxes low. Duncan admits that he wants “a massive influx of resources” in order to “dramatically expand access.” I’m sorry, but that’s not what Republicans were elected to support.

What’s needed isn’t a fancy campaign, complete with a “war room” and “outside-in” strategy, but a real negotiation.* Republicans might support high-quality preschool for poor kids, but not if it means a whopping new tax. What are Democrats willing to give in return?

I see opportunities in Duncan’s admission that “we spend all this time and money trying to catch [disadvantaged kids] up. And we wonder why we have an achievement gap.”

That’s true—so how about cutting some of the money that’s being spent further downstream—ineffectively, as Duncan acknowledges—and investing it in preschool, instead? Consider these options:

1. Cut the TRIO programs, which (as a recent Brookings paper shows) don’t work at preparing disadvantaged high school students for college. That’s $1 billion a year.

2.Cut Title II of ESEA, which is a big slush fund for school districts to spend on “teacher stuff” and class-size reduction—with no evidence of results. $3 billion a year.

3. Cut Pell grants, many of which are flowing to remedial-education courses from which disadvantaged students never escape. Introduce some minimal standards so that only students who are college-ready—a very low bar for community colleges, it turns out—can receive the aid. I bet you could shave $5 billion a year easy—a big chunk of it currently landing in for-profit universities.

There, I just found $9 billion a year. Ask Republicans to pitch in $1 billion in new money and you’ve got $10 billion a year for preschool.

Now that’s how you get the deal done, Mr. Secretary—that is, if you’re serious.

-Mike Petrilli

* President George W. Bush didn’t get No Child Left Behind through Congress by jawboning or staging events—he let top Democrats write key parts of the law. Granted, that resulted in crazy-quilt legislation and some really bad ideas (ahem, thank you Chairman Miller for Highly Qualified Teachers), but that’s the way our democracy works.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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