The biggest potentially game-changing policy idea in the State of the Union was the president's call for universal, high-quality preschool. As he said, in principle excellent preschool can make a huge difference in terms of long-term outcomes for kids. It can also be a huge boost to working moms and two-income families. But "high quality" is an aspiration, not a policy. What's the policy?
Well, here's what the White House fact sheet says:
Supporting all 50 states to provide access to preschool for all low-and moderate-income children: The President is proposing to work with Congress to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool, while also expanding these programs to reach hundreds of thousands of additional middle class children, and incentivizing full-day kindergarten policies, so that all children enter kindergarten prepared for academic success.
That sounds nice, but obviously it's not a very detailed plan. How much money is the federal government going to pony up? What's the income definition and subsidy level the president has in mind? By what standard are we assessing "high quality"? The quality point is really important, too.
People who consider themselves skeptics of K-12 education "reform" sometimes fall into a trap of thinking that preschool is like some kind of magic wand. But in fact the research on preschools is very similar to the research on K-12 schools. On both levels, some schools are excellent and make an enormous difference in kids' lives, but there are also a lot of middling to poor institutions that are adding little educational value. We have some intriguing examples of amazing preschools but little experience with bringing them up to mass scale—the exact same problem we have with K-12.