As the Build Back Better bill makes its way through Congress, significant changes are being made to the various proposals, generally for the worse. Hollowed-out versions of older proposals are limping to the finish line and it’s a completely different bill at this point.

The universal pre-k proposal is a good case in point. The version of the proposal that was introduced in late September had the federal government picking up the full cost of state-administered universal pre-k for the first three years of the program. From there, the federal government would reduce its share of the cost burden by 10 percentage points each year, settling at covering 60 percent of the cost in 2028.

YearPercent of Pre-K Expenses Covered Federally (First Draft)

This first draft was not ideal. Setting up the federal cost-sharing to shrink in the out years would give Republican governors even more of a reason to not participate. Furthermore, it’s just bad policy to push these costs down on the states.

The new draft is far worse though.

Under the current version of the proposal, year 2028 is gone and the first three years no longer have the federal government picking up the entire cost. Instead, the bill sets aside tiny pots of money for each of the first three years and then instructs the Treasury to ration that money out to states in proportion to how many children they have with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line.

In the fourth year of the program, the federal government picks up a fixed percentage of all the costs (95.44 percent) and then in years five and six, that percentage shrinks dramatically.

All together, the new scheme looks like this:

YearFederal Contribution to State Pre-K Expenses (Current Draft)
2022$4 billion
2023$6 billion
2024$8 billion
202595.44% of state costs
202679.534% of state costs
202763.627% of state costs

For all practical purposes, the universal pre-k bill has been cut in half: the last year was cut entirely and the first three years have such little money appropriated towards them that they basically don’t exist.

Whereas the old structure dangles out 3 years of full federal cost-sharing to entice states to participate, the new one contains no real enticement at all. It would be totally reasonable for a governor to look at this and say that it’s not worth setting up a full-blown universal pre-k system just to have a few years of partial federal support for it.

If you approach BBB as if it is a list of topic areas that you want to address, then it’s easy enough to say “universal pre-k is still in the bill” or “paid leave is still in the bill.” But the reality is that the current versions of these programs are mere husks of the old versions and even the old versions weren’t that great. If we go around saying we “passed universal pre-k” and then it doesn’t actually happen, that’s not a real victory and will almost certainly generate confusion and resentment.