Among the stump issues that McCain, Clinton, and Obama agree on—besides, of course, their strong support of barbequed ribs and their desire that God bless their hard-working fellow Americans—is a recognition that the nation’s failing public education system must be reformed. Drastically. And while the specifics of enacting that reform tend to get lost in the thicket of partisan politics and institutional hurdles—accountability, merit pay, vouchers, unions, etc., etc., etc., all tangled and knotted together—there’s one area of reform that is both (relatively) straightforward and proven to be effective: attacking public education’s problems at their foundation by investing in universal, federally funded pre-kindergarten.

Here’s the Nobel Prize-winning conservative economist James Heckman, arguing for pre-K in The Wall Street Journal (via a great post on the subject from Ezra Klein):

It is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and, at the same time, promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large. Investing in disadvantaged young children is such a policy. The traditional argument for providing enriched environments for disadvantaged young children is based on considerations of fairness and social justice. But another argument can be made that complements and strengthens the first one. It is based on economic efficiency, and it is more compelling than the equity argument, in part because the gains from such investment can be quantified—and they are large.

There are many reasons why investing in disadvantaged young children has a high economic return. Early interventions for disadvantaged children promote schooling, raise the quality of the work force, enhance the productivity of schools, and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency. They raise earnings and promote social attachment. Focusing solely on earnings gains, returns to dollars invested are as high as 15% to 17%.

Since, as we saw with No Child Left Behind, any piece of significant education reform legislation will likely require the weight of the federal government behind it for passage through Congress, it’s worth wondering what the presidential candidates think about pre-K. The Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Manier (hat tip, Kevin Drum) offers a quick-but-illustrative breakdown of the candidates’ approach to the pre-K question:

Although each Democratic hopeful is proposing dramatic increases in funding for Early Head Start, the federal program aimed at children younger than 3, they disagree on the importance of universal preschool.

Sen. Hillary Clinton’s proposals focus on extending universal prekindergarten by requiring that states offer preschool to all 4-year-olds to receive certain federal funds. Sen. Barack Obama would direct more money to the years before preschool and quadruple the size of Early Head Start, which now serves just 3 percent of eligible children. Obama describes his plan as “a preschool agenda that begins at birth.”

Officials for Sen. John McCain said the research has convinced the Republican nominee of the value of investing in early development, but he has not yet proposed changes to existing policies.

Okay. Good. Now that we know all that, let’s find out for audiences how Clinton and Obama propose to pay for the pre-K and Early Head Start programs they want to expand. How they’ll recruit teachers and administrators to guide those programs. Where they’ll find the physical space to run them. How testing and accountability will factor into them. Let’s find out what John McCain might like to see—even generally—in the way of early education. Might the maverick break with his fellow conservatives to endorse an expansion of the country’s public education system, rather than its slow privatization?

Let’s find out.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: though education policy has been an afterthought—when it’s been a thought at all—this primary season, reporters need to keep pressing the issue with the candidates. Sure, it’s not sexy; sure, it’s not desperately urgent, compared with the wars we’re engaged in and the faltering economy in/through/despite which those wars are being engaged. But even leaving aside the obvious long-term necessity of ed reform, candidates’ approaches to that reform also reveal how they think about big, systemic, entrenched problems—problems whose weight is moral as well as political. Problems whose solutions require the effective management of a massive, snarled, and complex bureaucracy.

Which might just reveal something about their approach to other problems, as well.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.