The Crucial Juncture of Early Education Reform

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Early education in the United States has functioned as a patchwork system of public and private programs on each the federal, state, and local level.  Every program operates with their own goals, qualifications, and most importantly, function to serve a specific subset of the American population (Philips and Zigler, 1987).  How and why early education has evolved into its current form can be traced back to a critical moment in American politics.  Most federal programs can be tracked to a crucial juncture, a time in which a vital transition leaves “a lasting mark on the political landscape, [and] one that constrains future reform possibilities” (Karch, 2013, p. 24).  For early education, its crucial juncture continues to be the introduction of the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 and its eventual veto by President Richard Nixon.

In the years leading up to the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, the nation was finally ready to address early childhood reform.  Women had started entering the workforce, cognitive psychologists had established the importance of early childhood experience, and the national Head Start program had established great gains in support across the nation (Karch, 2013).  Even Nixon, during his presidential campaign, promised to “make a national commitment to providing all American children an opportunity for a healthful and stimulating development during the first five years of life” (Hunter, 1971, p. 1).  Politicians from both sides of the aisle were willing to work together and rework the patchwork system that had been burdening American families from every social class (Rose, 2010).  From a distance, it seemed like all the necessary components for successful implementation of early education reform was lining up perfectly.  Why then, was the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 unsuccessful in bringing universal early education programs to American families, and what lasting implications have President Nixon’s veto had on early education reform efforts on future reform efforts?

The perfect storm of need, desire, and cooperation from the American public propelled early education reform into the spotlight, culminating in the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971.  Political pressure rather than the interest of American children resulted in Nixon’s decision to veto the bill.  The President’s veto message forever changed the political landscape of early education reform, labeling the act as an attempt to Sovietize American children, and has had “a chilling effect on efforts to channel federal resources to quality child care that has persisted to the present day” (Ludden, 2016; Philips and Zigler, 1987, p. 15).  The dismissal of federal legislation forced state and local governments to take on the responsibility of future early education reform agendas, resulting in an even more fragmented system of childcare.

The Changing Role of Women in American Society

Change in women’s participation in the labor force from 1950-2000 (Rose, 2010, p. 46)

Historically, women in the United States have been the conventional caregiver for children, and until the 1960s were rarely employed outside of their home.  In 1950, less than 12 percent of married women with children under six were employed.  By 1970, that number had increased to more than 30 percent (Karch, 2013).  The influx of women into the workforce, left preschool and child care centers overwhelmed and unable to meet their new demand (Ludden, 2016).  Previous to the 1971 bill, day-care centers had been available for impoverished families, often offered through philanthropists and social workers.  For wealthier, middle-class families, private preschool and nursery schools were popular forms of childcare (Philips and Zigler, 1987).  This early split between public and private programs and their association with impoverished and privileged communities stigmatized the purpose of early education and developed “social-class-linked conceptions of appropriate childrearing environments (Philips and Zigler, 1987, p. 3).

One of the many challenges that have prevented the successful implementation of early childhood initiatives has been the American value of individualism in child rearing.  This belief dates back to the beginning of early childhood programs and continues to impinge upon its progress.  Early education occupies a unique position in society because it combines both child-care and school preparation in one setting (Karch, 2013).  This contradicts an underlying belief that child rearing is the private responsibility of parents, whereas education is the public responsibility of the country (Rose, 2010).  The shared responsibility of childrearing between the state and families “threatens deep-seated values about motherhood, childrearing, and family privacy” (Philips and Zigler, 1987, p. 9).  Nevertheless, during World War II, in an attempt to get women into factories building supplies for the war effort, Congress passed the Community Facilities Act.  One part of the act aided in the development of childcare centers.  Although these centers successfully cared for over 1.5 million children, the shared responsibility of childcare was always seen as a “temporary solution” to the problems associated with childcare (Philips and Zigler, 1987).  Finding and maintaining the appropriate balance between public and private responsibility continues to be one of the greatest challenges early education reform faces on a national level.

Cognitive Psychology and the Purpose of Early Education

While the need for improved childcare options was initially the result of mothers joining the workforce, Cognitive Psychologist brought an additional element to the reform table.  Research conducted in the 1960s identified a critical period of cognitive development during the first five years of growth (Karch, 2013).  These findings brought about a new purpose for early education reform.  Many politicians saw this as a crucial component of their ‘War on Poverty’.  In 1965, Head Start, a federal early interventionist program for impoverished children was created with the promise of giving kids an early boost and long-term educational benefits (Rose, 2010).  For politicians, this program hoped to increase the success of the nation’s poor and help break the cycle of poverty and welfare dependence.  Head Start operated outside of the public-school system, allowing leaders to modify the program based on the needs of their community and incorporate parent involvement (Rose, 2010).  Although initial research about the effectiveness of Head Start was not overwhelmingly positive, it shifted the nations focus on student success.  For middle-class families, the promised benefits of early education for the nation’s poor made them question what benefits early schooling would on their own children (Karch, 2013).  The purpose of early education was evolving.  Instead of focusing on childcare, early education was now about “school readiness”, preparing students to be successful throughout their educational career.

The 1960s was an exciting time for those invested in early education reform.  U.S. Commissioner of Education, Harold Howe II, predicted in 1968 that “by the year 2000 most children in the United States will be attending regular public school starting at the age of four” (Karch, 2013, p.1).  In 1964, consultant Harry Levin projected the “present combination of circumstances…makes a large-scale establishment of preschools inevitable” (Karch, 2013, p. 57).   More importantly, the candidates for the 1968 presidential election were addressing early education reform.  Richard Nixon’s campaign expressed support for early education based on child development research and the desire to tackle America’s growing poverty problems (Ludden, 2016).  In a campaign speech, Nixon made a “’national commitment to providing all American children an opportunity for a healthful and stimulating development during the first five years of life”, which many saw as a commitment to large-scale reform efforts (United States. President, 1971).

The Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971

In 1969, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale and Indiana Representative John Brademas introduced the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act in Congress (Roth, 1976).  Federal legislation concerning universal educational programs was rare during this time period when most matters concerning education were debated on state and local levels.  The idea of universal early education was surprising and “represented an abrupt departure from previous government policy” (Rose, 2010, p. 43).  Additionally, the act’s long-term plan for all American students to attend early education programs through a sliding payment scale showed a shift in government spending priorities.  Marian Wright Edelman, a civil rights organizer, described how the “1971 bill tried to address the entitlements of all children and sought not to make child care a class issue.  We don’t need any more singling out of poor kids” (Rose, 2010, p. 48).  The preamble addresses the main goals of the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971:

“It is the purpose of this Act to provide every child with a fair and full opportunity to reach his full potential by establishing and expanding comprehensive child development programs and services designed to assure the sound and coordinated development of these programs, to recognize and build upon the experience and success gained through Head Start and similar efforts, to furnish child development services for those children who need them most, with special emphasis on preschool programs for economically disadvantaged children, and for children of working mothers and single parent families, to provide that decisions on the nature and funding of such programs made at the community level with the full involvement of parents and other individuals and organizations in the community interested in child development, and to establish the legislative framework for the future expansion of such programs to universally available child development services” (Roth, 1976, pp. 1-2).

Historically, Nixon’s decision to veto the bill and condemn any future forms of national early education has become the lasting remembrance of the Comprehensive Child Development Act.  Although many politicians and those within the nation were disappointed by Nixon’s decision, the flaws in the bill and its passage through Congress cannot be overstated in the bill’s eventual failure.  The Comprehensive Child Development Bill’s largest obstacle was its introduction as a congressional, rather than a presidential bill.  This rarely produces the same level of support needed for passage.  Furthermore, the Nixon Administration already had its own reform agenda, The Family Assistance Plan, which resulted in limited communication between Congress and the White House (Rose, 2010; Roth, 1976).  Both forms of legislation would require political support and would compete for the same funding (Karch, 2012).  A White House aid reported that the “President felt that separate child care legislation would undercut one of the most appealing features of the President’s own welfare reform bill” (Hunter, 1971, December 8, p. 51).  Not only did Congress fail to gain the support of Nixon, but also that of the public.  A strategic decision was made to speed up the bill’s passage through Congress by limiting time spent on educating the public and getting feedback about the proposed bill (Roth, 1976).  In time, this decision would turn the public against the bill, prompting Nixon’s veto message argument that “neither the immediate need nor the desirability of a national child development program for the character has been demonstrated” (United States. President, 1971, p. 2).

The language of the Comprehensive Child Development Act and the proposed amendments when passing through the Senate and House of Representatives also had detrimental consequences on its passage.  The House decided to attach the Comprehensive Child Development Act to the Economic Opportunity Bill, which was due for an extension in 1971.  In the early 1970s, vetoes were relatively uncommon and House leaders believed Nixon would not dare to veto the Economic Opportunity Bill, which was seen as a key part of the “War on Poverty” (Roth, 1976).  This represented one of the many examples of Congress’s overconfidence in their ability to pass the act.  Additionally, the act stated broad and vague goals for how the act would be implemented into American society (Rose, 2010).

The bill’s fundamental elements, prime sponsorship, was debated in both the House and Senate, resulting in an even more confused definition in who could apply as a prime sponsor.  The original House version had a population minimum of 100,000 individuals, preventing Indian reservations, small Head Start, nonprofit, parent, and migrant organizations from qualifying (Roth, 1976).  Meanwhile, the Senate considered not having a population minimum and the Nixon Administration believed only States should have the power to apply for primary sponsorship (Karch, 2013).  The Perkins amendment, introduced by Representative Carl Perkins, decreased the minimum sponsorship population to 10,000 individuals, which “had the effect of stripping the bill of almost the entire republic support it had in the house” (Karch, 2013, p. 79).  The ambiguity of the qualifications to obtain primary sponsorship across the House, Senate, and the Nixon administration proved central in the act’s eventual veto.  Sponsorship, parent involvement, and state vs. local involvement in early education efforts would be debated across both houses of legislation, and eventually lead to the dissolution of much of the bill’s support (Rose, 2010).  The lack of effective committee meetings, communication between branches of government, and different opinions about the long-term goals of the bill was never resolved in time to meet the 1971 Economic Opportunity Act deadline.

Opposition to the Comprehensive Child Development Act was heard while the bill passed through Congress.  Many were concerned that universal preschool would weaken family values.  A Florida mayor argued that the bill was “designed to destroy the family and the home…and lead us into a totalitarian state” (Karch, 2013, p. 74).  New York Times articles reported that “senators criticized the new program as both ‘radical’ and ‘socialistic’”, and that critics were “comparing it to youth programs in Nazi Germany and the indoctrination of the young in the Soviet Union and other communist countries” (Hunter, 1971, December 3, pp. 1 & 21).

Although politicians on both sides of the aisle were willing to work together, several key elements of the bill’s legislation were never fully addressed leading to a growing number of congressmen who opposed the bill.  The failure to address the concerns of primary sponsorship, the role of states and parent involvement, as well as gaining public support, contributed to the bill’s eventual failure.

Nixon’s Decision

In the days leading up to Nixon’s final decision on the bill, few in Congress believed the bill would pass.  Marjorie Hunter, a writer for The New York Times, believed “the President’s decision on whether to veto the legislation could be one of the most crucial domestic issues he has faced this year [1971]” (Hunter, 1971, December 8, p. 51).  Nixon had recently announced controversial trips to China and the Soviet Union and was still fighting to pass his Family Assistance Plan (Roth, 1976).  Some observers believed the “‘president made a very practical political decision that he had more to gain from vetoing it than from signing it’” with the 1972 elections right around the corner (Karch, 2013, p. 83).

On December 9th, Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, forever creating a crucial juncture for early education reform.  The reasons behind Nixon’s decision are mixed, but the language used in his speech “drove ‘a stake through its heart,’ so that similar child care legislation would not resurface in the future (In the words of Jeff Bell – American Conservative Union Lobbyist) (Rose, 2010, p. 63).  Nixon argued that the “program points far beyond what this administration envisioned when it made a ‘national commitment to…American children’” and “the intent of Title V [Child Development Programs] is overshadowed by the fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability, and family-weakening implications of the system it envisions.  We owe our children something more than good intentions” (United States. President, 1971, p. 1).  Nixon claimed that “it would be better to have no legal services corruption than one so irresponsibility structured (Rosenthal, 1971, December 10, p. 20).        Nixon’s veto message prevented the very nature of early education reform to be addressed again at the federal level by equating it with the sovietization of children.  Knowing that there had not been public discussion, Nixon was able to point to the lack of interest and need for such immediate and drastic changes to early education.  An aid to the Nixon Administration believed the president wanted to “kill the bill on philosophical grounds”, making future legislation a crime against the very values America was built on (Ludden, 2016; Rose, 2010).  Furthermore, the bill’s proposed cost was an easy target.  Although cognitive psychologists and recent studies had established the importance of early education, Nixon pointed to the “fiscal irresponsibility” of sponsoring a two-billion-dollar bill, “whose effectiveness has yet to be demonstrated” (Karch, 2013; United States. President, 1971, pp. 2-3).

The draft of the Comprehensive Child Development Act presented to President Nixon was not free from contextual and structural problems.  Decisions about primary membership, parental involvement, and the long-term goals concerning universal programs were not fully addressed, allowing the president to veto the bill without personal repercussion.  While protecting his own presidency, the Nixon’s “veto…spurred a series of reactions and counterreactions that affected the subsequent evolution of American preschool education” (Karch, 2013, p.8).  Advocates for reform started looking for venues at the state and local level to effect change, resulting in the long-term fragmentation of early education reform efforts (Karch, 2013).  The veto also marked the beginning of the conservative party’s association with traditional family values and a long-winded battle for reform efforts (Ludden, 2016).  The Washington Post believed the child development bill could be ‘as important a breakthrough for the youth as Medicare was for the old’”, however, as Joan Lombardi puts it, Nixon’s decision “‘set the child-care agenda back for decades: while other countries moved ahead, the United States stood still’” (Rose, 2010, p. 53; Karch, 2013, p. 85).

Reform Efforts in the Twenty-First Century

Percentage of 4-year-olds served in state preschool (Friendman-Krauss et al., 2018)

The Comprehensive Child Development Act started a national debate about the importance of early education for a child’s future success in school, and about what venue should be responsible for legislation concerning reform efforts.  In Nixon’s speech, he argues that the goal of government is to “diminish and eventually eliminate poverty in the United States”, but some policies should be left up to states to decide what best suits their individual needs (United States. President, 1971, p. 2).  This act brought about a larger discussion about the role of government in education policy (Roth, 1976).  Advocates for access to early education knew national level reform was no longer probable and therefore shifted their efforts to identifying state governments that would effectively implement their ideas (Karch, 2013).  Across the country, states have used different public and private approaches to increase enrollment in early education programs.  States differ in the scope of their programs, availability to students of different socioeconomic classes, and many other factors (Rose, 2010).  The various approaches used by states results in the current patchwork system.  Nevertheless, This disorder represents a continued interest and dedication to providing students with opportunities to succeed in school.

Although, Nixon helped establish traditional family values as the backbone of the conservative party, many red states continue to lead the nation in innovative early education reform efforts.  Research conducted in 2018 by The National Institute for Early Education Research identified Oklahoma as a leading state in three and four-year-old participation rates.  As one of four states to serve over 70% of four-year-old children, and meeting nine out of ten quality checklist standards, Oklahoma has quietly become a leader in early education reform (Friedman-Krauss et al., 2018).  Oklahoma has helped prove that early education does not have to be associated with political parties, but rather, politicians who want something better for all the students in their state.

Oklahoma pre-school enrollment, 1986-2006 (Rose, 2010, p. 115)

In 1980, Oklahoma started their early education reform efforts with the creation of just ten pilot programs across the state (Rose, 2010).  With the hopes of eventually providing all students with the opportunity to attend preschool programs, the state continued to fund and grow the programs (Friedan-Krauss et al., 2018).  In 1998, with a crisis in their public-school system, Oklahoma decided to add preschool to their school system.  This decision provided students access to free public preschool programs across the state, with over 99% of school districts offering preschool today (Rose, 2010; Friendman-Krauss et al., 2018).  One has to question what is unique about Oklahoma’s approach that has allowed them to grow into one of the most successful states in the nation.  One important element is that Oklahoma did not try to establish a universal program overnight.  Instead, it took several decades to form the system that is currently in place (Rose, 2010).  Because it is offered through their public-school system, local districts maintain some control over the programs, and they can be held to specific quality standards (Friendman-Krauss et al., 2018).  Oklahoma’s approach is not the only way to find success, but it does continue to serve as a model for other states looking to improve.

Many states have seen large increases in their total enrollment of students in early childhood programs since The National Institute for Early Education Research started collecting data in 2002.  This upward trend is encouraging, however, there are still seven states without formal early education programs, and many more with less than 10% of their total population of preschool age students enrolled (Friendman-Krauss et al., 2018).   Although the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 would have been an uphill battle to successfully implement, its failure to pass left states responsible for future reform efforts.  While some states like Oklahoma have implemented universal preschool programs, many states and the children they serve, have been left behind.

Percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state preschool, change from 2002-2017 (Friendman-Krauss et al., 2018)


The Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 represents a time in which the nation believed access to early education should be a right available to all children.  Changes to the labor market and research about early education helped heighten the debate concerning universal early education programs.  Although flaws in the bill’s language and Nixon’s political needs would prevent its implementation, the Comprehensive Child Development Act continues to serve as a crucial juncture for early education reform.  The decentralization of political authority from the national to the state level has helped create the patchwork system of early education programs seen across the country.  For now, a federally sponsored early education initiative seems unlikely, and it is therefore up to individual states to implement meaningful programs for their youngest citizens.  Some, like Oklahoma, Vermont, Florida, and the District of Columbia have risen to the top, providing over 70% of their four-year-old children with early education programs.  Other, however, fail to even start the initiative with any state sponsored programs.  Perhaps, what the nation needs now is not a universal program from the federal government, but rather universal standards to help guide states and their initiatives.


Work Cited:

Friedman-Krauss, A.H., Barnett, W.S., Weinsenfield, G.G., Horowitz, M., Kasmin, R. & DiCrecchio, N. (2018).  The state of preschool 2017: State preschool yearbook.  National Institute for Early Education Research, 14.  Retrieved from

Hunter, M. (1971, December 8). House clears poverty bill despite Nixon veto threat. The New York Times, pp. 1 & 51. 

Hunter. M. (1971, December 3). Senate approves a broad program of child day care. The New York Times, pp. 1 & 21.

Karch, A. (2013).  Early start: Preschool politics in the United States.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Retrieved from

Ludden, J (Producer). (2016, October 13). How politics killed the universal child care in the 1970s. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

Phillips, D. & Zigler, E. (1987).  The checkered history of federal child care regulations. Review of Research in Education, 14(1), 3-41. Retrieved from

Rose, E. (2010).  The promise of preschool: From head start to universal pre-kindergarten. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosenthal. J. (1971, December 10). President vetoes child care plan as irresponsible. The New York Times, pp 1 & 20.

Roth, W. (1976). The politics of daycare: The comprehensive child development act of 1971. Institute for Research on Poverty: Discussion Papers, 369-76.  Retrieved from

United States. President (1969-1974: Nixon). (1971). The veto message from the President of the United States, returning the Economic Opportunity Amendments of 1971 with his objections, &c. The American Presidency Project. Retrieved from