Preschool is a popular idea—in spite of decades’ worth of evidence that government-driven programs doesn’t work. Official evaluations find that any benefits are short-term and begin fading out as early as first grade, undermining promises of long-term cognitive benefits. Often-touted evaluations of smaller scale programs cited by politicians wanting to expand government preschool are also a bust.

A new Gallup poll, however, finds that 70 percent of Americans favor more federal funding for preschool. While that result may be getting headlines, another finding from the same poll is flying under the media radar apparently. According to Gallup:

Americans in general believe all levels of education are important, but there are differences in the relative importance they assign to each. At least nine in 10 Americans rate high school, middle school, and elementary school as extremely or very important, with roughly six in 10 saying they are extremely important. On a relative basis, Americans view preschool and college as somewhat less important to future life success. …

Americans may feel the basic knowledge people need to function in society — such as writing, reading, and math, which are learned in the K-12 years — is crucial to life success, while the more specialized knowledge learned in college, although arguably important for pursuing certain careers as well as for earning potential, is less crucial.

Americans may also consider college and preschool as less important than K-12 education because they likely view these as optional, whereas K-12 education is largely compulsory.

That’s bad news for Obama, who’s been pushing preschool– and college-for-all agendas for years. And the bad news keeps coming once you take a closer look at who exactly does and doesn’t support more government schooling.

Overall, roughly three-fourths of Americans believe preschool and college is somewhat or very important, compared to more than 90 percent who say K-12 education is. But how do the responses break down when it comes to federal funding for preschool and college? In terms of those who believe preschool and college are “extremely” important, across 15 age, education level, income level, racial, and political party sub-groups, the only ones where a majority think so are:

  • Postgraduates: preschool 50%, college 60%
  • College graduates: college 50%
  • Democrats: preschool 52%, college 58%
  • Parents of minor children: college, 50%

Significantly higher response rates from these sub-groups especially should be a slam dunk, but they’re not.

What’s more, however critical (or not) Americans may consider preschool and college to a successful life later on, the Gallup results did not indicate that Americans were willing to expand government further into schooling—or into our wallets through higher taxes to pay for that expansion.  At most the results underscored that Americans want education options to be available at all levels, not that they believe the feds are best suited to accomplish that goal.

Universal options for all—not one-size-fits-all—is a better policy approach.