Early childhood education, feminism, and public policy

This week the internet has apparently been exploding with meteors discussion of the president’s pre-school policy agenda. From a purely selfish standpoint, I wish the president had proposed this during the campaign. In the fall, I was teaching a graduate course in the history of childhood, and I organized the seminar around the central question, is childhood for children? My students in that class would have thoroughly masticated the president’s remarks.1 The president’s speech spoke briefly about the children, or rather the future adults the children would eventually become, but said nothing about the childhood experiences of children in or out of early childhood education.

The last sentence is not a moral judgment but an observation: we impose adult judgments and adult purposes on children all the time, and apart from Alfie Kohn and a few others, I suspect very few people could operate as parents without assuming some authority in (what I hope is) the wise exercise of power in structuring children’s lives. No historian of education or anyone else who studies children can avoid the fact that children have agency or free will, but that independent action to the extent it occurs is in the context of a society in which children have significantly less legal and usable power than adults.

In the past four decades, the bulk of public-policy discussion I have seen around early childhood has consistently been connected with adulthood and the labor force, either with access to childcare as a way to facilitate women’s labor force participation or as early childhood education to promote better long-term outcomes for the children and, in James Heckman’s framing, as a better investment than putting your money in the stock market. Kindergartens were pushed in Southern states in the 1970s and 1980s as modernizing forces in the effort of governors to join the rest of the 20th century, national debate over child care in the 1980s and 1990s revolved around either the needs of middle-class women to work or the approbation of families receiving welfare payments where the mother did not work. And now President Obama has signed onto the movement to expand early childhood education.

What is remarkable is not the president’s support of this program, or his argument. Rather, what is remarkable is the nature of opposing arguments: we can’t afford universal early childhood education, or it’s not effective. Do you notice what is missing in the arguments against the president’s proposal? What you do not hear this week is the argument that putting children under 5 in classes is morally corrosive. That marks a sea change from 40 years ago, when Phyllis Schlafly and many other conservative women were making arguments that it was wrong for mothers to work and wrong for young children to be under the care of others.2 Of the historical observations I could make in connection with the current debate over pre-K programs, the one that seems most obvious to me and yet completely ignored by the press is the sea change in attitudes towards women that this policy debate has required. Once again, debates over childhood are framed by adult issues, not only in terms of the human capital arguments President Obama raised on Tuesday night, but also by the underlying assumption that it is right and proper for mothers of young children to work, and therefore for young children to be in group care. 


  1. We also talked about the president’s speech in my Thursday class of undergraduates, but mostly in classifying the education portion as human capital rhetoric. []
  2. As Mary Frances Berry has observed, Schlafly was one of the most powerful lawyers in the country at the time, a prototypical example of the type of professional mother Schlafly railed against in public. []

4 responses to “Early childhood education, feminism, and public policy”

  1. CCPhysicist

    I didn’t know that Kindergarten was a relatively recent innovation in the South.

    There seems to be a mixed message from conservatives, where universal pre-K is good but Head Start is bad. What do you know about the research that allegedly says that pre-K programs, such as Head Start, are a failure? Finland seems to do well with lots of preschool daycare leading into a system that starts graded classes a year later than we do.

    PS –
    Yes, I know that such research is an example akin to physicists researching how other physicists do physics rather than actually doing it themselves, but I do agree that some of it is valuable as social science research.

    PPS –
    Ever read “A choice not an echo”, where Phyllis rails against Nixon as an agent of the internationalist left and in favor of the isolationism of Taft? I wonder what she would think of the imperial wars launched by W, not to mention a national education policy and an expansion of Medicare.

    1. CCPhysicist

      3) Didn’t think to check, but I see my instincts were correct:


      She despises “W” for one of the reasons I mentioned, and clearly hates Karl Rove for the sort of Republican inner council that she first attacked 50 years ago.

  2. Glen S. McGhee

    Interesting book on Carter — 1979 “Dept of Education Act” will surely stand-out a hundred years from now. If we are still around.

    The opening paragraphs on Fred Taylor and educational efficiency reminded me of the time I pulled down the 1919 Laws of Florida to read some law arguing for medical examinations for “more efficient children.”