Not so universal agreement on universal pre-K

In recent years there’s been a big push in many states for universal pre-K programs, which make access to preschool education available to all families. And that push appears to be working: 1.5 million three- and four-year-olds were served nationally as of 2015–16 at a cost of $7.4 billion. This study from Urban Institute’s Erica Greenberg presents results from the first nationally representative poll of one thousand American adults on their preferences for universal pre-K (i.e., publicly funded pre-k for all kids) versus targeted pre-k (publicly funded pre-k for poor kids). It uses data from a larger 2013 survey developed through the Laboratory for the Study of American Values at Stanford University.

What’s interesting is the survey uses a novel approach to test potential reasons that the American public may or may not support particular forms of preschool, and this merits some discussion. All respondents are first told that these programs are free for families who use them. Then the analyst tests the effect of “financial self-interest” on support for pre-K by randomly assigning respondents to one of two scenarios: in the first, the cost of the program is incurred on the respondent; and in the second, it is paid through external sources. Specifically:

[Option 1] Most experts agree that if the government is going to pay for preschool, taxes may have to be increased on households like yours.

[Option 2] Most experts agree that the government can pay for preschool without increasing taxes on households like yours.

All respondents are then provided descriptions of both targeted and universal programs and asked, “Do you support or oppose the government funding programs like these?” Instead of preferring one or the other, respondents can show strong, weak, or equal support or opposition for one or both programs. Finally, the survey tests whether support is “racialized,” meaning whether respondents associate targeted programs with a particular racial or ethnic group. All receive a prompt describing a targeted program and are then shown one of two random pictures depicting the program: one of a white teacher with two white students, and the other of the same teacher with two black students. They are then asked if they would support or oppose the program.

The study finds that, on average, there is moderate support for targeted and universal pre-K, with no distinguishable preference for either. Roughly one-third equally support or oppose both forms. And a plurality of 36 percent has no preference, meaning they are more likely to favor than oppose both approaches, with the remainder landing squarely in the ambivalent category (i.e., they neither support nor oppose).

Across the sample, the possibility of higher taxes has no statistically distinguishable effects on support for targeted programs, meaning Americans feel equally favorable toward public investments in low-income preschoolers, whether or not they may have to pay more taxes to fund them. But the threat of higher taxes substantially decreases support for universal preschool by nearly a quarter of a standard deviation. And a small number of subgroups appear consistent in their level of support for both targeted and universal preschool regardless of the possibility of higher taxes—including black and low-income respondents and parents of school-age children, among others.

Respondents who respond positively to an “egalitarianism scale,” which measures beliefs about income equality (e.g., “If wealth were more equal in this country, we would have many fewer problems”), also tend to support preschool in general, especially the targeted kind.

Finally, there is no significant difference in overall support for targeted preschool relative to the race of children attending or by any particular subgroup of respondents (disaggregated by race, income, level of education, etc). Yet some subgroup differences did surface: Specifically, self-identified Democrats, liberals, and egalitarians favor targeted approaches, while Republicans, conservatives, and inegalitarians favor the universal approach. 

That last finding clearly upends common dogma—and deserves its own research study. But the fact that the threat of higher taxes decreases support for universal pre-K should come as no surprise. In the end, although both kinds of preschool enjoy similar support, the tide changes when taxpayers are asked to consider tapping their own wallets to provide services to all children, regardless of circumstance. That’s something that policymakers looking to advance universal pre-K should keep in mind. 

SOURCE: Erica H. Greenberg, “Public Preferences for Targeted and Universal Preschool," AERA Open (January-March 2018).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.