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My favorite part of the President’s State of the Union address was his plan for expanding pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds. The idea has been around for decades, and it did once very nearly become law until it was vetoed by President Nixon. But in the past 40 years, two big parts of the early education picture have shifted dramatically. The first is that we know for a fact that quality preschool will positively affect the child’s life through adulthood. The second is that preschool is no longer used as a weapon to make mothers feel guilty. This cultural change may be the more significant for women.

Back in the day, kindergarten was the first step in formal education. You weren’t expected to read before you got there, or be able to write your name on your phonics book. You probably had spent your time home with your mother before kindergarten, instead of sitting in circle time, or learning how to share or take turns. Nobody so much as whispered “kindergarten preparedness” in your direction, or “school readiness” within your hearing. Getting ready for school was what kindergarten was all about, for heaven’s sake! Nothing happened before that milestone was reached.

However, there were other forces at work, too. There was a widely held perception that preschool was absolutely no substitute for the devoted care and attention of your own mother. If your mother was a “good mother”, she would want you home with her, and not in the care of strangers! If she enrolled you in child care, or an early ed program, she was dodging her maternal duty, and may be selfishly putting her own interests first. You could always tell a woman loved her children because she would indignantly declare, “I would never put my kids in child care!” Raising kids and staying home with preschool age children was what women did. It was what they were supposed to do. It was what made them happy and fulfilled. It was what being a wife and mother was all about!

Fast forward to 2013. The lives of women are fundamentally changed. What a mother “should” do or “ought” to want has been blown to the side by the economic needs of families, women’s advanced education, and the freedom to move into employment sectors that used to be closed and locked to those of us with breasts and ovaries. If you’re a believer in preschool, you are far less likely to hear that the quality of your mothering is suspect. While child care varies greatly in quality, it is no longer assumed to be inherently bad everywhere and all the time. If you are home with the kids, you can sign ‘em up for a pre-K program without feeling guilty or letting yourself in for a bashing. No one will look at you askance if you drop your toddler off for the two-year-old class. There are options. You can be a great parent whether pre-K or child care is a part of your life or not. Using some form of non-parental care doesn’t make you a “bad parent.”

Pre-K now figures in our national debate for once without the accompanying issue of women’s “proper” role in society. Of course, we will argue about the expense of it (though the cost of NOT having it is what should really worry us!) We will argue about exactly which kids should get it (low income kids? all kids? the kids whose parents can’t afford it?) We will argue about what constitutes “quality,” how to achieve it and how to sustain it. Finally, what we will debate is the policy of early childhood, rather than the prejudice towards mothers.

It may be very modest progress, but it is progress.

‘Til  next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington

(For further commentary on the President’s pre-K proposal, see Gail Collins’s column in the NYT, Nancy Folbre’s Economix blog, Sharon Lerner’s piece in the American Prospect, and this report from the Public News Service)

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