Save the Children?

The Childhood Education Debate That’s Really About Adults

by Sara Winnick

Illustration by Soyoon Kim

published March 13, 2015

According to Leanne Barrett, senior analyst at the policy and advocacy center Kids Count Rhode Island, five state departments currently oversee the creation, funding, and administration of early childhood education services for children ages zero to five in Rhode Island. The Departments of Education; Human Services; Children, Youth, and Families; Health; and the Medicaid Office manage four major avenues through which the state’s youngest students access critical pre-Kindergarten services. Barrett calls this infrastructure “fragmented and uncoordinated” at best. In the middle of a recent conversation with the Independent, she laughed and stated, “It’s all so complicated you’ll never be able to fit it into one article.”

Barrett uses an image of four overlapping circles to illustrate the four options low and middle-income families use to access affordable early childhood education services. The first circle is the Child Care Subsidy System, which issues a tax credit to working families with children aged younger than 12 in public or private care. According to a 2013 Kids Count policy brief, Rhode Island subsidizes early education for 7, 616 children a year—roughly four percent of the state’s three to five year-olds.

Second, families in the lowest income bracket in the state can benefit from the federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start pre-Kindergarten and daycare programs. Head Start provides early learning development and social service supports like mental health counseling, dental care, and medical checkups to families. Almost 10 percent of Rhode Island’s three to five year olds are currently enrolled in Head Start programs.

In 2008, a coalition of early childhood education advocates created a third early education circle by passing the Rhode Island Pre-Kindergarten Education Act, which resulted in a fully funded state program ranking top four in the country for quality. The program currently serves only 234 students in the state, or the two percent of RI four-year-olds lucky enough to be selected in the lottery process. The Coalition hopes to raise that number to 1,000 students in the next two years.

The fourth circle, “always forgotten,” according to Barrett, is special education services. The 2004 emendation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act extended federal responsibility for providing “free and appropriate public education” to students with special needs from birth through age 21. The law requires that schools “locate and identify” children with disabilities or developmental delays, and provide childcare and early childhood services to prepare young children for public education.

There is, of course, a fifth way to receive early childhood education services for newborns to five year olds in Rhode Island: for parents to pay for those services out of pocket. Though costs of preschool vary drastically by region, Childcare Aware Advocacy estimates the average cost of preschool in the Northeast is $9,600 per year. Federal guidelines for affordable childcare state that a program is affordable if it costs less than 10 percent of a family’s annual income, which means that only families with annual incomes of $96,000 or more—approximately 22 percent of Rhode Island households—can afford to educate their youngsters.

The messiness of Barrett’s four-circle, five-department drawing is not a product of conflicting research about what early childhood education can do for children. After decades of research, there is little debate that early childhood education is cost effective with long-lasting gains. The forty-year Perry Preschool study found that early childhood education significantly and positively affected students’ future educational attainment, employment status, home ownership, incarceration rates, and physical health metrics. The Abecedarian Project similarly found that a five-year early intervention program resulted in higher academic performance, greater likelihood of attending college and obtaining employment, and less likelihood of teenage pregnancy and drug use for the students it served.

The bureaucratic, low quality, hugely expensive system of early education is incongruous with the substantial demonstrated positive impacts a cohesive system would have for children. The messiness of the Rhode Island and US landscape around early childhood programming, however, is not a product of what the government is willing to do for children. The history of early childhood education shows that the lack of universal, affordable pre-Kindergarten services in the United States is a product of what the government is willing to do for adults.




On May 18, 1965, one week before Mother’s Day, before an audience of 250 women in the White House Rose Garden, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech about children. “We set out to make certain that poverty’s children would not be forevermore poverty’s captives. We called our program Project Head Start.”

Head Start marked the first attempt at federal provision of affordable pre-school for low-income children. Key to creating this early childhood intervention program, and placing childcare on the national policy agenda, was the rising influence of the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. Between 1950-1969, the number of women in the workforce with children under six tripled, creating an increased need for childcare and early education services.

Though the gendered impulse of Head Start at its May 18 launch party were obvious, the Johnson administration framed the program in explicitly children-centric terms. “Five and six year-old children are the inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators,” said the President. “Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation like a family birthmark.”

This “save the children” appeal permeated early calls for Head Start and was extremely politically expedient. It took the focus of early childhood education away from the program’s primary advocates and secondary benefiters. Mothers, especially working-class, single mothers of color, are a more politically difficult group to advocate for in the United States.

By focusing on children, “the inheritors of poverty” rather than “its creators,” and helped along by the ever expanding welfare state of the post-War, Civil Rights Era, Johnson created a broad coalition of Head Start supporters. Feminists, researchers, physicians, educators, and democratic politicians alike were able to come together and secure $70 million for the Head Start pilot program. Unfortunately, this broad base of support resulted in confusion about where to locate control at the department level. The program was initially housed in the Office of Economic Opportunity and funded through the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. It served 560,000 children in the summer of 1965.




Although Washington’s PR campaign focused on the youth, Head Start was intended from the start to empower both children and parents living in poverty. Head Start’s initial mission was two-fold: close the gap in school readiness between rich and poor students and provide community controlled day care centers to serve as parent-advocate training grounds for poor communities. Polly Greenberg, founder of a Mississippi Head Start, explained that Head Start attempted to change the “political equation” between politicians and Head Start community members. Unfortunately, as Education Historian Elizabeth Rose writes in The Promise of Preschool, “not everyone was so enthusiastic about empowering poor black parents.”

Two people especially unenthusiastic about the prospect of a political cohort of empowered Black parents were 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon and anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly. Though Nixon ultimately vetoed the legislation that would have created universal access to affordable early education, he campaigned for the 1968 election on the promise of uniting the disparate strands of Head Start funding and providing universal early childhood education through federal legislation. Nixon initially adapted the child-centric rhetoric; in a campaign advertisement he stated, “I see the face of a child. What his color is, what his ancestry is, doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he is an American child.” Nixon drastically changed his pro-children rhetoric and pro-preschool stance in the three years to come.

The Nixon administration’s 1971 Child Development Act was an enormous piece of legislation that guaranteed not only national free pre-Kindergarten services for three to five year-olds across the country, but also funds for after-school programs, meals, medical assistance, and dental care for poor families. Countless women’s, educational, and religious groups, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics and both houses of Congress endorsed the bill.

Schlafly fiercely opposed the bill, stating that it was a “radical attempt for the government to take over the raising of children.” She began a very vocal and visible anti-preschool campaign, mobilizing thousands of Republican women to call their senators. Editorials entitled “Child Development Act—To Sovietize our Youth” and “Big Brother Wants Your Children” appeared in Times Magazine and the New York Times.

That year, Nixon vetoed the bill that his administration wrote and that his Congress overwhelmingly passed. Nixon not only vetoed the bill, but also issued a powerful ideological renouncement of its values. The veto categorized the $2 billion financing the Child Development Act as “a long leap into the dark.” It ominously predicted that the bill would obligate “the federal government to plunge headlong financially into child development [and] would commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to childrearing over and against the family-centered approach.” Patrick Buchanan, advisor to Nixon and author of the 1971 veto, added, “taking children out of the home… didn’t seem to be traditionally American.”

Nixon’s 1971 veto not only stopped the development of universal early childhood education in its tracks, but also changed the rhetoric of the debate from focusing on children to centering around families. The change in focus from children to families allowed anti-early childhood education advocates to bring adults—specifically, adults living in poverty—into the conversation. In the context of the 1970s, when early childhood education was synonymous with Head Start, “families” became coded language for adults—specifically mothers living in poverty. In the national imagination, these mothers were thought to be single and primarily Black.


Although Reagan’s myth of the Welfare Queen was still 16 years away from being coined, the specter of pathological black motherhood looms in the ideological undermining of the 1971 Child Development Act. Nixon stated that he vetoed the bill in order to avoid committing the “vast moral authority” of the government to the side of “communal approaches to childrearing over the family centered approach.” The word “communal,” and the phrase “not traditionally American” invoke an otherness associated with Black families particularly salient in the late 60s and early 70s following Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for Family Action.” Moynihan’s report was a seminal sociological text that blamed matriarchal family structures for structural poverty in the Black community. Moynihan identified overpowering Black mothers as the cause of Black poverty and racial inequality; it resounded powerfully with a national imagination of dysfunctional Black families.

Nixon’s 1971 veto could not rescind the commitments and existing infrastructure of early childhood education services that already existed from Johnson’s Head Start launch. The coalition that had been so integral to early education’s initial success now created a complicated bureaucratic mix of infrastructure, money and policy. Without the 1971 legislation, there was no way to unify these streams into one cohesive department or program.




Three decades later, the affects of Nixon’s 1971 veto and his ideological undermining of pro-child early education advocacy are still being felt. Two percent of low-income mothers in Rhode Island benefit from the state’s pre-Kindergarten program, 10 percent enroll their child in a Head Start program, and eight percent have their child identified as a student with special needs. If a mother is employed, her child could be one of the four percent of the state’s children whose pre-school costs are covered by a tax credit from the federal government. Even if a mother is able to place her child in care, there is no guarantee of what quality care that child will receive. According to PBS documentary Raising America, most child-care workers are paid less than parking attendants. And those workers are disproportionately poor women of color, likely not making enough money to pay for their own children’s early education costs.

Despite all this, Leanne Barrett is optimistic about the possibility of equal access to early childhood education and childcare in the years to come. She says that even in the face of “a terrible recession, the threat of sequesters, and constant congressional gridlock,” early childhood advocates are making “incremental progress” towards affordability and universality. Last year in his state of the Union Address, President Obama called for legislation making “high-quality pre-K available to every four year-old.” This fall, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio promised universal pre-Kindergarten services to every four year-old in the city.

This January, Obama resurrected calls for federally provided childcare that have been off the national political agenda since the Head Start Days of the late 60s. Avoiding one-dimensional pro-children language, Obama attempted to advocate for early education services on behalf of low-income parents. “When having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever,” he said. Possibly in an attempt to distance childcare debates from welfare queen stereotypes, Obama’s 2015 State of the Union also de-gendered the debate. “It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us,” he said. The next presidential administration, however, will get to determine who the “us” includes.


SARA WINNICK B’15 wants to Sovietize our youth (jk?).