The Preschool Question: Who Gets to Go?
Va. Expansion Efforts Highlight Debate
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007; A01
The children in Carrie Hamilton's preschool class yesterday drew wobbly hearts with wobbly letters underneath. They tapped the buttons on a toy cash register and raced cars over roads built of wooden tracks. Hidden in the games and giggles were lessons on the building blocks of reading and math.
These Fairfax County 4- and 5-year-olds are part of a national push to devote more public resources to the youngest learners. They are also at the center of a debate, underscored last week in a Virginia policy shift, over whether the government should offer preschool to all children or concentrate on those from poor families.
Nationwide, about 950,000 children are enrolled in state-funded preschool, a 36 percent increase from five years ago, said experts who track the programs. As advocates promote quality pre-kindergarten as a way to prepare children for school, strengthen the workforce and reduce crime, states have increased funding since 2005 for such programs by 75 percent, to $4.2 billion, according to the District-based organization Pre-K Now. Some in Congress have also proposed more federal money to help build state preschool initiatives.
The questions about which children will benefit most from government-funded preschool and how great the investment should be are at the core of Virginia's effort to expand pre-kindergarten but have also arisen in Maryland. Next week, in its first foray into all-day preschool, Montgomery County plans to introduce full-day, federally funded Head Start classes for 260 students at 10 elementary schools that serve low-income neighborhoods. This week, Prince George's County expanded its full-day state-funded preschool program by half, to 261 classes, also targeting students from poor families.
After campaigning in 2005 to offer free preschool to every 4-year-old in Virginia regardless of family income, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) scaled back his plan last week and said he would focus resources on the neediest children.
In an interview yesterday, Kaine said his pledge to launch universal preschool was prompted by research showing that a tremendous amount of learning takes place before the first day of kindergarten. But education experts persuaded Kaine to build on the work of existing public and private preschools.
"Instead of just creating a system from scratch, why not take the existing network and focus on the goals of increasing access and increasing quality?" Kaine said. "We can change the financial criteria to help kids who can't afford it and have an impact on the quality of all parts of the system."
Virginia 4-year-olds who qualify for free school lunches -- those in households with incomes of less than $27,000 for a family of four -- are eligible for free preschool, and about 12,500 children take part at an annual state cost of about $50 million. Kaine's plan would extend benefits to children in families with incomes up to $38,000. The new proposal, which envisions enrolling about 17,000 more underprivileged children by 2012, would cost an additional $75 million a year.
Kaine also is calling for a state-led rating system to help parents gauge how providers measure up. Preschools, much like restaurants or hotels, would be rated on a five-star scale based on such factors as the educational level and training of teachers, class sizes and an expert's classroom observation.
Kaine's plan to offer universal preschool for all 100,000 4-year-olds in the state would have cost about $300 million annually.
Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley who is a leading proponent of income-targeted funding, said research has shown that children from poor families get the biggest boost from high-quality preschool. He said universal preschool provides unneeded benefits to wealthy families and said the emphasis should be on helping children in lower-income homes, who tend to start school knowing fewer letters and numbers than their peers.
"We need to focus scarce dollars where the benefit is the greatest, and that's to children from low-income and blue-collar households," Fuller said. "If dollars are sprinkled across all families rich and poor, it's illogical to think early learning gaps will be narrowed."
But other education experts said the country should shift to preschool for all children. They say every dollar spent on public preschool will improve school performance, lessen the need for remedial education and have other long-term benefits.
A recent study of New Mexico's preschoolers showed that students in the state program learned many more words and scored higher on a test of early math skills than peers who didn't attend.
"Even though it costs more, the public is better off if they make sure it gets to all kids," said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. "Even middle-income kids, the middle 60 percent, have a 1 in 10 chance of failing a grade, a 1 in 10 chance of dropping out of high school. A lot of that can be traced to how far behind they were when they started kindergarten."
Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, which backs universal access, applauded Kaine's proposal. "Given the political realities of the state, he's starting where he should," Doggett said, alluding to Virginia's budget constraints.
The federal Head Start program provides preschool for about 900,000 children from low-income homes across the country, and many states fund classes targeted largely to disadvantaged children. Georgia and Oklahoma offer universal preschool that reaches large percentages of children. Other states, including West Virginia and New York, are working toward such programs.
In Florida, voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2002 that mandates pre-kindergarten for all children, but critics contend the quality of the program has suffered because of a lack of funding. Last year, California voters rejected a ballot measure that would have taxed the wealthy to pay for universal preschool.
In the District, more than 5,000 children are enrolled in full-day preschool programs in public schools.
The nonprofit preschool of Annandale Christian Community for Action, where Hamilton's students played yesterday, is one of several private centers in a pilot program started by Kaine to help Virginia reach more children from disadvantaged homes. This summer, the center has new state funding for 26 additional children.
Camilla Torejo, 4, showed off her artwork as classmates flipped through books, played computer games and zoomed around with toy cars. "I made this heart and this heart and this heart," Camilla said. Next to them, she wrote her name.
Staff writer Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.