Erica Greenberg

Graduation School of Education

Center for Education Policy Analysis

Preferences for Preschool: The Universal/Targeted Debates in Public Opinion


For the last half-century, the federal government and numerous states have administered early childhood education programs for low-income children. These targeted programs are intended to equalize inequalities that arise before the start of formal schooling and have been valued for their high returns-on-investment. By contrast, in 1995, Georgia became the first state to offer public preschool for all children. Ten other states are working toward universal provision, and President Obama announced plans to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America in his February 12, 2013 State of the Union address. Despite these recent policy changes, debates regarding targeted and ├Čuniversal├« programs, or redistributive and entitlement approaches to early childhood education, continue to divide advocates, policymakers, and practitioners. These debates reference public opinion frequently. However, they have not invoked rigorous empirical evidence on the topic to date. The current study seeks to fill this gap by examining preferences for universal and targeted preschool; mediators and correlates of these preferences, including self-interest and egalitarian beliefs; framing effects; and overlapping considerations of income and race. The study will also gauge public preferences regarding universal preschool finance. In all, the Laboratory for the Study of American Values has allowed me to collect the first nationally representative public opinion data on preferences for universal and targeted preschool, important both for the future of American early childhood education and for state and federal social policy, more broadly.