Preschool is now “hot”, according to the New York Times.  “If early childhood education were an actor, it would be Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep,” Gail Collins writes.  “If it were a video game, it would be Candy Crush or Angry Birds.”

It’s true that preschool initiatives are popping up around the country, from Cambridge to California.  While many local preschool initiatives have been initiated by Democratic governors and mayors, they generally have a more bipartisan feel than more traditionally partisan issues such as defense spending, environmental protection, or labor and union laws.  For example, Proposition 10, the California initiative that provides funding for preschool programs in Los Angeles and elsewhere, was supported by both Democratic and Republican public figures.  And last year, thirty of the forty states with preschool programs increased funding, including thirteen states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures.

So what’s changed?  How has a traditionally liberal issue become a dependable campaign plank for liberals and conservatives alike?

Preschool Reverses the Equity-Efficiency Tradeoff

I think one of the keys to preschool’s public profile is that it reverses the traditional equity-efficiency tradeoff – the economic principle which asserts that increasing wealth means making our society less equitable.  A stronger economy means bigger divisions between rich and poor.  In the case of preschool, the tradeoff is reversed:  investing in our most at-risk children has the effect both of increasing equity and improving the strength of our economy.

Another way to look at this is using the framing of intrinsic and instrumental values.  Intrinsic values are those inherent in the thing itself; those in its basic nature.  Instrumental values are those that achieve an external aim.  Pia Rebello Britto, a leading expert on international early childhood issues, has applied this framing to early childhood.  The intrinsic conception of early childhood relies on its inherent value to improve children’s lives.  In this frame, improved achievement, behavior, and self-concept are seen as end goals.  The instrumental conception, on the other hand, weighs the practical benefits of providing early childhood, such as broader economic and social benefits.

Preschool neatly fulfills both of these goals, thereby satisfying both frames.  Because these frames are also roughly aligned with liberal (intrinsic) and moderate/conservative (instrumental) worldviews, preschool investments become a language that can span the partisan divide.