WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden looks to revive his stalled social-spending plan, he is doubling down on "universal pre-K" as a transformational initiative that he won't abandon.
"We want to have the best-educated workforce," Biden said Wednesday at a White House event with businesses executives designed to boost his Build Back Better agenda. "And that's why universal pre-K is going to mean so much."
But even if it passes, some Republicans at the state level told USA TODAY they would be reluctant to participate in the program. That could be a big problem because Biden's plan relies on state participation and matching dollars that would total billions of dollars from local coffers.
Biden has promised that all three- and four-year-olds will have access to free high-quality preschool if his $1.75 trillion package passes. Yet GOP resistance at the state-level threatens to undercut a proposal that advocates say could transform early childhood education in the U.S.
"I'm a very big advocate for pre-K, but I'm not a big advocate of federal programs such as this," said Tennessee state Rep. Mark White, a Republican who chairs the legislature's Education Committee. "I've seen too much in the past where you lose accountability and there's a lot of waste" with big federal programs like that.
"It would not receive a majority of support" in the Tennessee legislature, White predicted.
The Congressional Budget Office's review of Biden's pre-K proposal estimated only 60% of U.S. children would live in states that take part in the pre-K program, meaning 40% would be in states that opt out.
How would Biden's pre-K plan work?
Biden's signature Build Back Better proposal, which includes a spate of climate and social policy provisions, stalled in Congress in December after the White House failed to win the support of moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The president wants to pursue a scaled-back version with some provisions stripped out. It's unclear what a future package will include, but Biden has made it clear he wants the pre-K component, which seeks to extend two years of free public preschool to a projected 6 million children, to stay in. The pre-K proposal is in addition to $276 billion Biden has proposed for subsidized childcare.
During a news conference earlier this month, the president pointed to Manchin's support of the early childhood education proposal and claimed it's among the issues on which Americans "overwhelmingly agree with me."
The president has proposed $109 billion to expand prekindergarten over the next six years. The federal government would provide grants to participating states for the first three years, through 2024, with the allocations determined by state poverty levels among children under 6 years old. Washington would cover 95% of a state's costs in 2025, but the federal share would decrease to 80% in 2026 and 64% in 2027. The program would expire in 2028 unless Congress were to extend it.
States would be required to submit plans for preschool programs that meet federal quality standards, prioritize communities in poverty, offer pay that matches elementary school teachers and satisfy other federal criteria. The state proposals would be vetted by the federal Department of Education.
'You have to dance their dance'
The structure mirrors other federal policies that have relied on state buy-in to receive federal dollars, with mixed results.
While Republican governors have embraced money for roads and bridges in Biden's $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, several Republican governors turned down enhanced unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Some states were also slow to spend federal emergency rental assistance.
"Absolutely, the Republican, conservative governors are going to have a lot of caution in considering whether or not to participate in this because it's really a federal takeover of pre-K," said Rachel Greszler, a research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation. The financial burden would fall on states if a future Congress doesn't extend the program, she argued. "They're left to foot the entire bill, or else cut off access to all these people who are now used to having that program."
During the Obama administration, a slew of Republican governors turned down federal money to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Twelve states continue to decline the extra funds that would come with Medicaid expansion.
"I am always very skeptical when the federal government gets involved because of all the strings that come attached to it," Indiana state GOP Rep. Robert Behning, chairman of the Indiana House Education Committee, said of Biden's pre-K plan.
"You have to dance their dance to get it," he said, adding there would be "definite concern" among other Indiana Republicans as well.
Arizona state Sen. Paul Boyer, a Republican and chairman of the state's Senate Education Committee, said he would hesitate to take federal pre-K money that would "lock in future legislative bodies with being on the hook" for spending down the road. He said other Republican lawmakers in Arizona would probably have similar concerns.
"If the feds would like to give that to us as a block grant program, I will gladly take it. But if there are strings attached for future legislatures, then no, I can't accept it."
Plan would 'radically alter' access to pre-K, advocates say
An estimated 59% of 3- and 4-year-olds attended pre-K in 2019 (either public or private), according to the National Household Education Survey, but that was before the pandemic, which forced many preschools to temporarily close. About 1 million preschool students were de-enrolled when COVID-19 forced school closures and shutdowns.
Forty-four states and the District of Columbia offer some sort of public pre-K program, but only D.C. "even comes close" to providing a true universal program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. More than 5 million preschool age children lacked access to publicly funded pre-K in the 2019-2020 school year, including 2.5 million children living at 200% or less of the federal poverty level.
"We have been close to dead in the water in terms of increasing preschool participation over the last 20 years," said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the NIEER, which is located at Rutgers University. He called Biden's pre-K proposal the "the kind of significant policy change that could radically alter the pace at which preschool is extended to the children who currently don't participate, and that's about half of the kids in poverty."
The Build Back Better bill would also offer grants to local school districts or Head Start centers for pre-K expansion if their state opts out – but that could create a hodgepodge of programs across each state and fall short of Biden's goal of universal pre-K.
Still, Barnett predicted participation wouldn't be an issue, arguing one of the advantages of pre-K is "it's not a Republican or Democrat issue." He pointed to states with strong pre-K programs led Republican governors, such as Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, and West Virginia.
"These are some of the better states in terms of pre-K policies. A number of them won't have to change anything," Barnett said, adding that governors in these states could take the federal funds to improve programs they're already doing. "Why wouldn't they do that? It's something they're already doing. It's not asking them to do something they object to. They won't have to change their policies."
Biden administration officials have also made that argument and expressed optimism that states will want to participate. The White House emphasized states would be charged with defining and implementing the quality standards for preschools and that states and localities currently cover 90% of K-12 public school costs, a greater share than Biden has proposed for pre-K.
Preschool currently costs families more than $8,000 a year on average, according to the White House, which has framed the pre-K and preschool plans as critical to enable parents to work. The U.S. ranks 35th out of 37 economies on access to early childhood education, relative to gross domestic product.
"We think Republican governors will have some explaining to do if they decide not to participate in the program," said Carmel Martin, deputy director for economic mobility in Biden's Domestic Policy Council. "It has broad public support across the political spectrum."
Many governors reluctant to weigh in
Some Republicans are more open to the idea, yet wary of further straining the existing teacher workforce
"There's always an appetite for more because we do not have enough slots available in our schools for pre-K, and we'd love to have more," said Arkansas state Rep. Bruce Cozart, who chairs the state's House Education Committee.
He said he would explore boosting Arkansas' early childhood education program, called Arkansas Better Chance, or ABC, if the president's legislation passes. But he raised concerns about federal funds one day depleting, putting the added slots for kids at risk. He also said Arkansas' supply of teachers to accommodate a rapid pre-K expansion isn't enough.
"Until we can get more teachers, more workers to run those places, it's kind of hard to add those pre-K slots in."
Most Republican governors contacted by USA TODAY were reluctant to weigh in on Biden's pre-K proposal.
Through spokespeople, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declined to take a position on the plan. Some said they had policies not to discuss pending legislation before it becomes law. The offices of Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson were among those that did respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a frequent critic of Biden, did not rule out expanding pre-K with federal dollars. But DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw warned "against a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach that prioritizes checking a box rather than meeting students’ and families’ unique needs." She said 71% of 4-year-olds in Florida are served through the state's existing, voluntary pre-K program
"Biden’s campaign promise of 'free universal pre-K' sounds appealing, and can work (as Florida’s success demonstrates)," Pushaw said in an email, "but snappy slogans do not always translate to good policy."
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a moderate Republican in a Democratic-leaning state, has perhaps been the most outspoken GOP governor in publicly endorsing Biden's pre-K plan, calling it "strong and needed" in a series of tweets in December.
Rasheed Malik, director of early childhood policy at the progressive-leaning Center for American Progress, said he believes state lawmakers, including Republicans, will ultimately expand pre-K through Biden's plan, if Congress approves it, because their constituents will demand they do.
He said criticism from Republican state lawmakers right now is not necessarily "reflective of what they will do." He noted Republican governors have tapped funds made available through Biden's American Rescue Plan, which passed Congress last spring, even after some criticized it.
"When the rubber meets the road, I really truly believe that a whole lot more states are going to work with these funds in ways that serve the families of their state," Malik said. "And if they don't, there's gonna be a lot of really upset families and businesses."
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's universal pre-K: Roadblocks exist for national preschool plan