Panel Paper: Public Preferences for Targeted and Universal Preschool

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 8:20 AM
3015 Madison (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Erica Greenberg, Stanford University
For the last half-century, the federal government and numerous states have administered preschool programs for low-income children. These programs are intended to equalize inequalities that arise before the start of formal schooling and are often valued for their high returns-on-investment. By contrast, in 1995, Georgia became the first state to offer free preschool to all children. State leaders were motivated by the promise of higher total net returns to society, as well as the political gains accompanying a larger pool of program beneficiaries. Nearly a half-dozen other states have since followed the Georgia model – and President Obama announced plans to support the remaining states in this effort during his February, 2013 State of the Union address.

Debates regarding so-called “targeted” and “universal” programs, or redistributive and entitlement approaches to early childhood education (ECE), have fostered deep divisions among advocates, policymakers, and practitioners. Despite frequent references to public opinion, however, these debates have not invoked rigorous empirical evidence on Americans’ ECE policy preferences. The proposed study fills this gap by examining preferences for targeted and universal approaches to public preschool and the reasoning behind them.

I employ public opinion data collected from two unique omnibus surveys. The first, fielded by YouGov in early 2013, relies on a nationally representative sample of 1,000 respondents. It proceeds in three parts. First, I gauge the national level of support for public preschool. Second, national preferences for targeted and universal approaches to preschool are assessed via direct questioning and survey experiment. Third, I probe political economic theory suggesting that preferences for targeted preschool are conditioned by racialization. In each part, I examine the demographic, socioeconomic, and ideological correlates of ECE policy preferences.

To date, findings suggest that Americans support the public provision of preschool. They favor increased spending, on average, though support for preschool lags behind support for policies like children’s health insurance, job training, and Social Security. Preferences for preschool are affiliated with partisanship and political ideology: Democrats and liberals are more likely than others to endorse these programs. Counter to political theory and public discourse, however, I find no significant difference in preferences for targeted and universal approaches to preschool. Roughly 37% of the sample shows no preference for either approach—and is just as likely to support as oppose both. Among respondents with a distinct preference, egalitarianism predicts the difference: those who favor equality of opportunity are more likely to favor targeted preschool. In addition, I find that the threat of increased taxation significantly decreases support for universal preschool, while it has no effect on support for targeted programs. Finally, I find no difference in preferences for targeted programs depicted as serving white children compared with those depicted as serving African American children. 

The second survey, to be launched in May 2013, builds on these findings. It will investigate the mechanisms that determine ECE policy preferences, trade-offs between preschool and other levels of education, and broader expectations for political leaders on early childhood issues.

Full Paper: