Progressives love the word “universal.” It conjures up images of more perfect unions between all people. Universal health care is now a mainstay of democratic presidential platforms, although opinions differ on what “universal” means in that context. Universal pre-k is also gaining steam as the go-to issue on the progressive education agenda. Ezra Klein, blogging at the American Prospect, called it “one of the great disappointments of contemporary liberal politics” that liberals aren’t uniting behind universal pre-k.
The problem with universal pre-k is that it will reinforce existing inequalities in the education system. The reason why programs like Head Start are necessary is because underprivileged children need more help than others when starting school. One of the big benefits to Head Start is that underprivileged children get to start coming to school earlier than other children.
Focusing on universal pre-k causes that playing field to level again, perpetuating overall inequities in the system. Klein and I would agree that more funding for education is a good thing, but that funding should be directed in a way that tries to address inequalities, rather than ignoring them.