Americans generally believe their country to be a land of equal opportunity, where if you work hard and follow the rules you will succeed, no matter your background. However this basic faith has been challenged in recent years, both in academia and in political discourse. Children_in_a_Primary_Education_SchoolIndeed, the issue was brought to the forefront of the political debate following President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, where he argued for universal high-quality education for our nation’s youngest.  At first blush, it is unclear why anyone would dispute improved education for 4-years-olds. Yet President Obama’s proposal has already been met with criticism from House Republicans.

For right-wing conservatives, this debate is centered on a blurred distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Republicans often underscore this distinction when trying to bolster their case for “a merit-based society” – one that stands in direct contrast to “an entitlement society”.  In the most recent election, Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, spoke of his belief in an economy driven by meritocracy, where individuals achieve success through education, hard work and risk taking.  This political philosophy is one reason why Republicans often dismiss recorded levels of inequality with respect to social and economic mobility.  Furthermore, Republicans believe that President Obama’s actions since taking office provide a clear example of an expansive government, quick to impose regulations in order to overcome any obstacle, and they see Obama’s early-childhood education plan as no exception.

As it stands, though, America is near the bottom of the developed world when it comes to upward mobility.  A study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in 2011 ranked the United States 27 out of 31 OECD countries for providing equal opportunities for “self-realization.”  Moreover, there is a tremendous degree of research that suggests that a child’s potential for economic success is heavily influenced by the economic position of his or her parents.  According to a study published by the Brookings Institute in 2007, 42% of children born into the bottom fifth income bracket will stay in the bottom, and 39% of children born into the top fifth income bracket will stay at the top.  President Obama’s proposal to invest in early-childhood education is a direct effort to reduce the aforementioned disparity and equalize opportunity across socioeconomic groups.

Critics of the President’s plan point to a Department of Health and Human Services Study that shows that any gains resulting from the existing $8 billion a year Head Start program, which serves low income families and children, do not last beyond third grade.  Yet President Obama’s plan is not simply an extension of Head Start.  In contrast to Head Start, it will provide funding and will encourage all states to adopt universal pre-school for every child in America.  Early-childhood education has a profound impact on a student’s ability to excel, as 90% of the brain is developed between the ages of zero to five.  Furthermore, funds will be directed toward preparing 100,000 new qualified teachers in the fields of math, science and technology.  This is particularly important since, according to an OECD Programme for International Student Assessment report, the United States ranks 14th out of 34 OECD countries in literacy skills, 17th in science and 25th in math.

In fact, there is a very strong conservative case for increased funding to improve early-childhood education. James Heckman, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, makes the case that investment in education yields anywhere between 6-10 percent returns per year.  This return on investment is in large part attributed to the fact that education, especially in low-income areas, invariably leads to a reduction in a host of social and economic problems in America, including, crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and high school dropout rates.  By reducing teenage pregnancy, for instance, we begin to reduce the number of children being born outside of marriage.  This is critical as children born into families with two incomes have an advantage due to increased income and nurturing time.  Similarly, incidences of crime and drug abuse are greater in low-income urban communities across America.  Poverty, in turn, is associated with adverse health conditions, crime, debt and marital breakdown.  By reducing these societal problems we begin to break the cycle of poverty and level the playing field for those born into low-income families.

From a conservative standpoint, increased funding to improve early-childhood education seems like an obvious bipartisan goal, as it promotes traditional values such as stable families and law abidingness.  Furthermore, a well-educated labor force will produce a multitude of positive externalities for society at large, such as lower unemployment and greater international competitiveness.  By making sure that children reach the age of 18 at a much more equal place, the state can then step away and allow meritocracy to take its proper course.

Marissa B. Semkiw is a student at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.  Prior to attending Wagner, Marissa worked as the sole associate to the General Counsel and Chief Financial Officer of a Toronto based private investment fund manager.