Republicans interested in re-crafting both our party’s meaning and its messaging would do well to examine an article in today's New York Times on an unlikely trend-setter in pre-K education. The surprise innovator: none other than Alabama, site of the most racially polarized electorate in the country, proud sponsor of the most draconian anti-immigrant law in America, and a consistently unfriendly climate for reform.
The narrative, in typical Times fashion, is not as simple as the headline. The Alabama program aspires to eventual pre-school access for all 4-year olds, while Obama’s proposals concentrate the bulk of their effort on families within 200% of the poverty line -- just under $45,000 for a family of four.
The ambitiousness of the Alabama program reflects its supporters’ sensitivity to particular factors: first, the fact that the state’s public school population, outside a few metropolitan areas, is overwhelmingly lower-middle class means that the program will end up serving mostly as an instrument for low-income families; and second, the politics in a deep red state dictate that any program avoid being classified on its face as a hand-out for poor people.
But the specifics of Alabama’s initiative should not obscure its alliance between pro-growth conservatives who recognize early education’s value in developing a workforce and social conservatives who understand that childcare strengthens the hands of parents by making them more willing and able to work. In other words, two reliable elements of the Republican base have coalesced around what some national talking heads denounced as either more heavy handedness from Washington (a strange critique given that the program is a transfer of dollars back to the states and not a mandate) or as more pandering to parts of Obama’s coalition.
To be sure, Obama is appallingly silent on other fronts: the weak achievement levels of adolescents who are routinely advanced without adequate reading or comprehension skills; the bureaucratic impediments to parents transferring their kids from substandard schools; and the many ways tenure currently warps teacher accountability. And it may well be that parents ought to be offered an option to trade pre-K access for a daycare voucher, especially when only five of the 39 states offering access to preschool education receive high quality marks on national metrics.
But promoting the mobility of the working poor is not pie-in-the sky liberalism, and it impresses all manner of un-poor people who appreciate the pay-off in reviving the weakest links in their community. Letting Obama own such an inherently conservative value is the dumbest kind of politics.