the national interest

How Obama’s New Early Learning Plan Could Happen

President Barack Obama shows
Photo: Sonya N. Hebert/The Dallas Morning News/Corbis

The Obama administration today unveiled an ambitious new plan to expand pre-kindergarten education. The proposal would not only guarantee pre-kindergarten education for all children from families up to twice the poverty line, it would also expand nurse visitation and other services to children from birth. Very early education is the most promising frontier of social science — Jonathan Cohn wrote a masterful overview story explaining how new research about the development of minds at a very young age is turning the education of babies and young children into a vital public policy issue.

The administration has done way more on education than most people, even people who follow politics very closely, tend to appreciate. The stimulus included a sweeping overhaul of K-12 education, called “Race to the Top,” which dangled a pot of federal prize money as a lure to states to reform schools. Because it was thrown in to the stimulus, which came in the midst of a huge economic crisis and a giant partisan fight over spending, it got lost in the shuffle. Obama has since expanded education reform efforts up and down the age spectrum, introducing performance metrics to prod colleges to provide better education value and to improve Head Start. The early education plan involves all these elements — requiring the use of standards to gauge performance, but also providing real money to expand access for poor children.

The money, of course, is the sticking point. House Republicans are not the sort of people who, when presented with evidence of a really promising public investment program, nod their heads and say, “okay, then!” They hate Big Government, and the fact that some Republican governors are already expanding early education is not likely to dissuade them. That’s why, when Obama first floated this idea in his State of the Union address, my reaction was to lump it in with a bunch of blue-sky proposals that will never happen, at least while Obama is in office. (Michael Tomasky argues, more optimistically but along the same lines, that Obama is trying to set the precedent for a public debate that will come to fruition after he leaves office.)

But thinking about it again, it occurs to me that Obama’s plan actually might stand a chance of enactment — and if it happens, it could happen pretty soon.

To understand how this could work, you need to step back and look at what the two sides are fighting over and what they really want. The big fight dividing the two parties right now is the automatic budget cuts called the sequester. Neither party likes the cuts, which were intended as a kind of mutual-destruction mechanism that could force a deficit reduction agreement. Obama wants to replace the sequester with a mix of cuts to retirement programs and reduced tax deductions for the rich. Republicans say they won’t agree to any tax revenue at all, and they want to cut entitlements but won’t say how.

Taxes for the rich are the ultimate source of the deadlock. The GOP’s primary goal has been, and remains, low taxes on the rich. Republicans have never been willing to trade higher taxes on the rich for anything. In 2011, they refused to accept higher taxes for the rich in return for cuts to retirement programs. During the fiscal cliff, they refused again, cutting a lowest-common-denominator deal that let some of the Bush tax cuts on the rich expire only because the alternative was an even bigger tax hike on the rich. I wrote a whole book on this. Republicans care about this more than anything in the world.

Democrats are pulled by two different impulses on fiscal policy. They — at least the dominant wing, represented by the Obama administration and most of the Congressional caucus — want to hold down long-term deficits. But they also care about inequality and don’t want to strike any deal that makes inequality worse, which would happen if you reduce the deficit solely by cutting social spending. That’s why Democrats want to make rich people pay higher taxes (at least up to the point that it would discourage the rich from working hard, but we’re not near that point). Higher taxes on the rich is the way to solve the deficit concern and the inequality concern. Since the thing Democrats want most is also the thing Republicans hate the most, the result is near-total partisan warfare on almost everything touching the federal budget.

In this context, Obama’s early childhood education plan is not necessarily a poison bill but a way around the impasse. Republicans want to stop the sequester, they want to replace it with cuts to retirement programs, and they want Democrats to give them cover on it because it’s incredibly unpopular. Democrats want to reduce the deficit but only in a way that doesn’t increase inequality. A solution here may be for Obama to offer to pull a large chunk of the revenue he is demanding off the table and replace it with his early childhood education plan. The burden of the deficit reduction would fall disproportionately on the non-rich, but it would also establish a powerful new tool to help poor kids get ahead.

Now, obviously, that would make the plan worse from a deficit-reduction standpoint. But it wouldn’t be prohibitive. The cost of Obama’s plan — if we use a similar proposal by the Center for American Progress as a proxy — is about $100 billion over ten years. Changing the cost-of-living measure for Social Security benefits would save ten times as much as that over the second decade.

If you figure that Republican claims to care about the budget deficit are fake and their concerns about low taxes for the rich are real — which their revealed preferences have shown since 1990 — then you have fruitful ground for compromise. Obama doesn’t get all the revenue he wants, and Republicans have to give back some of their spending cuts to waste a new handout to moocher tots, but both sides have something they can live with. Republicans spared the Pentagon and got to take a whack at entitlement spending, and Obama reduced the deficit some more and secured a major new part of his legacy. Maybe, just maybe, it will come to pass.

How Obama’s New Early Learning Plan Could Happen