With a growing body of research pointing to the importance of early child development and its effect on later academic and social progress, enrollment in state-funded preschool has more than doubled since 2002, to about 30 percent of all 4-year-olds nationwide. In just the past year, Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and the city of San Antonio have enacted new or expanded programs, while in dozens of other places, mayors, governors and legislators are making a serious push for preschool.
In New York City, where the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, was elected on a promise of universal prekindergarten, the dispute between him and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is not over whether to expand the program, but how.
For generations, it was largely Democrats who called for government-funded preschool — and then only in fits and starts — and that remains the case in Congress, where proposals have yet to gain traction among Republicans. But outside Washington, it has become a bipartisan cause, uniting business groups and labor unions, with Republican governors like Rick Snyder of Michigan and Robert Bentley of Alabama pushing some of the biggest increases in preschool spending.
"It's a human need and an economic need," said Mr. Snyder, who raised preschool spending by $65 million last year and will propose a similar increase this year, doubling the size of the state program in two years. He called the spending an investment whose dividends "will show up for decades to come."
Analysts also see politics behind the shift at the state level, with preschool appealing particularly to women and minorities, groups whose votes are needed by Republicans.
"If you cast it as an issue of inequality, Republicans get their back up right away, but there's a sincere and growing concern on the part of a lot of Republicans about how to increase economic opportunity," said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to President George W. Bush. "And politically, they also really want to change their image as the party that just says no, to find something with broad appeal that they can say yes to."
Few government programs have broader appeal than preschool. A telephone poll conducted in July for the First Five Years Fund, a nonprofit group that advocates early education programs, found that 60 percent of registered Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats supported a proposal to expand public preschool by raising the federal tobacco tax.
Image: Preschool blocks, via Shutterstock