SCHOOLED ABOUT PRESCHOOL: It’s all Nixon’s fault!


Part 2—The Culture of Liberal Indifference: Last Tuesday, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama made an important proposal.

“Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” the president said. Columnists swung into action.

Last Friday, David Brooks praised the proposal in a well-reasoned, information-strewn column. As he closed, he apologized for being rude, but he explained the potential gain for the nation in Obama’s proposal:
BROOKS (2/15/13): This is rude to say, but here’s what this is about: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It’s about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent.

President Obama has taken on a big challenge in a realistic and ambitious way...
We wouldn’t put it exactly that way, though we don’t think Brooks was being rude. But as everybody knows by now, children who come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds tend to be way behind their middle-class peers by the time they’re three years of age.

Later in life, society pays the price, in various ways, if these children fail to thrive. More fundamentally, those children deserve the best chance to succeed, to the extent that we know how to provide it.

(Refresher: To see Damien Fowler, 4, “playing a memory game with his teacher,” just click here. Our young scholar happpens to live in a state which is spending to give him good preschool.)

Brooks wrote an intelligent column. One day earlier, Gail Collins pretty much clowned. On the bright side:

In various unintentional ways, Collins gave us a grisly look at The Culture of Liberal Indifference.

In her column, Collins pretends to explain why our 4-year-olds don’t have quality preschool right now. She takes us all the way back to 1971—to a veto by President Nixon.

After Obama’s State of the Union, Collins spoke with Walter Mondale. It was Mondale’s bill which Nixon vetoed back in 1971.

Long ago, Nixon votoed Mondale's bill—but how can that possibly matter now? In this passage, Collins provides the basic outline of her column:
COLLINS (2/14/13): Nobody was happier [about Obama’s proposal] than Walter Mondale, the former vice president. “This is going to be wonderful,” he said in a phone conversation. His delight was sort of inspiring. If I had been down the road Mondale has traveled, my mood would have been a little darker.

In 1971, when he was a senator, Mondale led the Congressional drive to make quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it. Everybody. The federal government would set standards and provide backup services like meals and medical and dental checkups. Tuition would depend on the family’s ability to pay.

And it passed! Then Richard Nixon vetoed it, claiming Congress was proposing “communal approaches to child rearing.” Now, 42 years later, working parents of every economic level scramble madly to find quality programs for their preschoolers, while the waiting lines for poor families looking for subsidized programs stretch on into infinity.
In this column, Collins reworks part of her 2009 book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. In that book, Mondale’s bill is largely treated as day care legislation; it isn’t clear that the bill was designed to provide “quality preschool education.”

Day care is an excellent goal, but it isn’t the same as quality preschool education. But so what? In her column, Collins fudges this distinction, producing a pleasing history in which our modern-day lack of quality preschool is all Nixon’s fault.

Collins achieves an improbable task in her column. She outlines the history of American preschool without ever saying the words, “Head Start.” Let’s offer a bit of background:

The Head Start program was enacted in 1965, at a time when liberals and other reformers didn’t know how hard it was going to be to equalize educational opportunity and outcomes. Just six years later, Mondale’s bill passed the Congress and was vetoed by Nixon.

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Mondale’s bill really would have made “quality preschool education available to every family in the United States.” As Collins manages to note, Nixon vetoed Mondale’s bill 42 years ago.

At no point does Collins really explain how a 1971 veto can explain the lack of quality preschool education today, in the year 2013.

In fairness, Collins runs through a parade of horribles designed to please liberal readers. She quotes Pat Buchanan, who helped write Nixon’s veto message. She says the defeat of Mondale’s bill “was one of the earliest victories of the new right.”

That may be true, but what happened next? In her column, Collins offers this truncated history, in which she skillfully fudges and smudges The Culture of Liberal Indifference:
COLLINS: After Gerald Ford became president [in 1975], the early childhood education bill’s supporters tried to resurrect the plan. They had hardly done anything besides agree that they probably ought to wait until after the 1976 election, when they were hit with a political tsunami. Members of Congress started getting hundreds and hundreds—sometimes thousands and thousands—of hysterical letters accusing them of plotting to destroy the American family.

This was before constituent e-mail, when that kind of outpouring was shocking, particularly since a number of the writers seemed to believe that Congress was plotting to allow children to organize labor unions and sue their parents for making them do chores.

“That was really the beginning of the Tea Party. The right wing started to turn on this thing viciously,” said Mondale. “They said it was a socialist scheme. They were really pounding the members of Congress and a lot of people got cold feet.”

Nobody really knew where it was all coming from. A reporter for The Houston Chronicle traced the hysteria back to a man in Kansas who had written the leaflet, based on information he’d received from a revival in Missouri, which he told the reporter he had since learned was almost all completely wrong.

But that was it. Later, people would begin proposing modest preschool programs, particularly for the offspring of poor women who were required to work after the repeal of welfare entitlements in the Clinton years. But there would never again be a serious attempt to guarantee all American families access to quality early education and after-school programs.
Liberals may find that history pleasing. According to Collins, crackpot pushback came from the right; Mondale is quoted dinging this as the true start of the Tea Party. A revival meeting was even involved!

And then, “that was it.” Suddenly, we find ourselves “in the Clinton years,” with modest proposals being offered. That said, the Clinton years started in 1993. Just like that, twenty years have disappeared as Collins tells her story.

Was Mondale’s bill mainly about day care, or did it really propose “quality preschool education?” For current purposes, it doesn’t matter. We don’t doubt that pushback came from the right, and that much of the pushback may have been ill-informed, even zany.

But that was the early 1970s. Where is the subsequent effort from us high-minded folk on the left? How did all those years go by without an attempt at further progressive action? Skillfully, Collins forgets to ask such questions in her column. This lets us enjoy a pleasing tale, in which a good, kind man of our own noble tribe is defeated by the other tribe's crazies.

Collins pens a pleasing column. But in her book, as she closes Chapter 11, she provides a franker history of what happened after Nixon’s veto. We’ll start in 1977, with Carter in the White House, Mondale by his side. By now, the crazy leaflets have come and gone—but the liberal world has agreed to submit.

Remember, the revealing narrative which follows was published in 2009. Rep. John Brademas was Mondale's partner in the House on the 1971 bill:
COLLINS (page 290): Although Jimmy Carter did bring Democratic control back to the White House, with Mondale as his vice president, the new administration had little interest in creating expensive new governmental programs. Brademas, who had become part of the Democratic leadership in the House, was busy on other projects. And, as [Brademas aide] Jack Duncan said, nobody really “wanted to go through that again.” Although Congress would keep fiddling with preschool programs to help poor children, there was never another serious attempt to create a national answer to the problem of who took care of the kids in an economy that now depended on women to work.

“I still hope we can get ourselves organized,” said Mondale recently, not sounding all that hopeful. “I tried everything.”
As you can see from that passage, Collins’ book mainly treats the Mondale bill as an attempt to provide day care; it isn’t clear that this bill was really about “quality preschool education” at all. But either way, the appalling history described in that passage defines The Culture of Liberal Indifference—a culture which is never discussed in columns by people like Collins.

How did we get from Nixon to here? Here’s how:

After the liberal world got its ass kicked in the early 70s, nobody really “wanted to go through that again,” Collins quotes Duncan saying. Result? According to Collins, “there was never another serious attempt” to address the needs addressed by Mondale’s bill. Instead, we liberals sat around and tugged on our dicks and pretended to care, producing the situation Collins describes in her pleasing but misleading column.

“I tried everything,” Mondale said in 2009—referring to an effort he made 38 years before! Even in her book, Collins shows no sign of seeing how absurd that statement was.

So typical! Almost forty years later, Mondale said he still hoped that we liberals and Dems could somehow “get ourselves organized!” But that comment appeared in Collins’ book; last week, readers of her column were shielded from such strange remarks. In Collins’ column, we were told about Nixon’s veto—and about a revival meeting featuring the crazy new right. We weren’t encouraged to wonder how leaflets from the early 70s could explain the lack of quality preschool today.

Why do low-income children lack quality preschool, except in states like Oklahoma? The answer to that is blindingly obvious, though liberal columnists will never discuss it. By the mid-1970s, it was clear that equalizing educational outcomes was going to be very hard. In some cases, there would be opposition from the right—and low-income children were farther behind that anyone had supposed, in ways which were hard to address.

At that point, the liberal world quit on low-income kids. In her column and in her book, Collins directs our attention away from that part of this history. We’re asked to think about Buchanan and Nixon instead. Our massive liberal indifference is skillfully disappeared. Within the pseudo-liberal world, it has to be Dick Nixon’s fault. By law, it can't be ours.

Collins erased four decades of liberal sloth. But another problem was raised by Obama's address.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama mentioned two red states which are leading the way in this area. Just like that, a Cable Liberal tried to make that disappear.

Tomorrow: But Oklahoma can’t be OK! The Cable Liberal's tale.


  1. Brooks wrote: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future.

    I disagree with Brooks's reasoning.

    1. This point is supposed to justify government-run early education for all, even though most parents do have the necessary means, skills and interest.

    2. It's by no means a given that some government education program will be successful. Look at the failure of Head Start to have permanent academic improvement. Look at the growing number of parents who are so dissatisfied with their public schools that they're choosing to do the work of Home School their kids.

    3. In theory, parents already have the means to build their children's academic future: they can send the kids to Head Start.

    4. But, Head Start doesn't work. So, the proposal is to build a new program that's like Head Start, but even bigger. A better approach would be to begin by reforming Head Start so that it does work.

    1. Not that you care, but the proposal is for universal pre-K as an "option." If parents have the means, skills and itnerest, nothign would stop them from doing what they are doing.

      You don't deny that millions of parents could really use free/subsidized pre-K but you want to deny it to them because (1) some parents dont need it and (2) because head start doesn't turn kids into geniuses

    2. Your blanket acceptance of the meme that Head start
      "doesn't work" is misplaced. There is more research that says it does than doesn't, and much if not all of the failure can be traced to insufficient funding. I don't think there's anyone who doesn't think we should try to improve Head Start even as we expand it.

    3. I've seen little attention to improving Head Start. Neither President Obama, Bush or Clinton ever made it a priority AFAIK. I don't see op-eds pontificating for the need to improve the program. I'd say there's little support for trying to improve Head Start.

      Furthermore, I think there's be substantial opposition to making radical changes. If Head Start were run by private industry and competing with other similar programs, there'd be metrics to see how effectively each teacher was. The less effective ones would be canned. There would be continual changes in the structure and curriculum, in order to meet the competition. All these things would be uncomfortable for the employees.

      I think the actual Head Start employees would oppose these approaches to making Head Start more effective.

  2. Bob,
    Don't be too hard on liberals.

    They were tired from fighting the War Against The War, and wanted to rest for a while.

    Ya know, after Bush, Cheney, Rove, et al., Tricky Dick is starting to look pretty good.

  3. It is not and never has been indifference. There's a reason why Bill Clinton found it necessary to stage a Sista Souljah moment and "end welfare as we know it." It might be worth noting, too, that Democrats were a minority in Congress from 1994 through 2006 -- and in the House once again since 2010. Heaven forbid TDH would seek a constructive way for liberals who do care to pursue the issue without fatal political damage -- not when the more delicious character assaults on "the liberal world" (whatever that is) are available and he can convince himself he's the only one who cares.

  4. "Why do low-income children lack quality preschool, except in states like Oklahoma?"

    Evidence? For the preschools in Oklahoma, overall, being "quality"? For low-income children elsewhere (e.g., blue states) lacking it to the degree Mr. Somerby implies?

    Low-income children in my town in MA have access to state-subsidized, "quality" pre-school (and I don't mean daycare, though low-income children have access to subsidized daycare, too). And they have since some time in the 1990's, as I recall. The whole system is all way too patchwork and there's not enough of it. It needs to be made universally available in straightforward ways.

    So let's get going on this. Does Mr. Somerby really believe that the roadblocks to it are going to come from liberals? From liberals indulging in, "This is what we have always wanted and have been blocked from doing, except on a smaller scale at the state level"?

    If Mr. Somerby wants to argue that many (not all) national liberal pundits quit on low-income children, he has a point. But why focus his, and our, attention there now? Why be so ungenerous to these pundits, or to the politicians who have been hemmed in by the right for years (which is the main reason this subject ceased to be a high priority among pundits)? It's just plain weird. Let's start constructing a positive left-right discourse on this subject, so we can actually get done what Mr. Somerby, I do believe, passionately wants to see accomplished. (I could be told, "Well, you don't have to read these posts!" but I don't want to stop reading them, especially Mr. Somerby's posts on education. I learn an enormous amount. His angry chiding of liberals, after all the right has done to block progress in this area, is terribly off-putting.)

  5. and by the way: why don't have the greatest confidence in Oklahoma's "quality" or pre-K (along with my husband's stories of growing up there, and his sisters'):

  6. I went to school in DC 1965-67, worked there til 1969, then went to NYC to work til 1973.

    These were the heydays of the Democrats wooing the Black vote.

    I can tell you from first hand experience that Democrats took the Black votes for granted.

    Sure, the government built swimming pools in the ghettos and had free soul concerts in the parks. (These policies kept rioting to a minimum.)

    But despite a lot of promises, they offered very little real help.

    Republicans and Democrats alike made sure those on welfare had almost no way out.

    Obama has completely different motives than his predecessors; as different as black and white.