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Republican Governors Are Embracing Pre-K

Tots don’t vote — but increasingly, pols are looking to them to score points with voters.

It was business as usual for a Democrat when Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis rolled out a plan for expanding preschool — until her opponent, Republican Greg Abbott, hit back with a pre-K platform of his own.

Tots don’t vote — but increasingly, pols are looking to them to score points with voters. In Texas, Davis attacked Abbott’s proposal on the grounds that it would mean standardized testing for 4-year-olds; Abbott has been lampooning Davis for not having a cost estimate for her proposal, presumably an expensive one.

Democrats including President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have embraced pre-K in their platforms for years. Now, Republicans are getting on board, in conservative Southern states like Georgia and Alabama, Midwestern right-to-work states Michigan and Indiana, and in some instances on Capitol Hill. Some Republicans who have rejected taking federal dollars for Medicaid expansion are comfortable vying for federal pre-K money.

In Texas, having two candidates duke it out over how to make pre-K better is ultimately “a win-win,” said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. Though their approaches differ, both are making promises that would benefit young, low-income kids.

And pre-K could be a winner for a governor or future presidential candidate looking to paint himself or herself as ideas-driven and to cut into a Democratic opponent’s pull with swing voters, said Kevin Madden, an ex-Romney campaign adviser and executive vice president at JDA Frontline.

“Democrats have gone head-first into this economic inequality or economic opportunity argument,” Madden said. “Republicans feeling a need to engage can look at this — at the education issue and at early childhood development — as an area where they can have an impact.”

Former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who has pulled pre-K into Democratic campaigns in recent years, was more blunt: “This issue is one [Republicans] almost have to move on before the next presidential campaign,” he said at a recent event hosted by early childhood advocacy group First Five Years Fund.

Momentum is building among red-state governors. Mississippi, South Carolina and New Mexico are among the states that made large investments into pre-K last year. Republican governors in a slew of other states — including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Nevada — also have been pushing the issue. And several governors considered potentials for a 2016 White House bid, including Mike Pence, John Kasich and Brian Sandoval, are lining up behind the pre-K cause.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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