School-less in California

I recently became a fan of Rob Reiner.  No, it is not for his work on The Princess Bride (although I must say, “wuv tru wuv”).  I became a fan when I learned that he is a major advocate for early childhood development and helped to create First 5 California, a program that now provides critical services to young children.  And, then, I learned, he turned his energies toward making preschool available for all California children.  He backed Proposition 82 in 2006, a ballot initiative that would have provided access to free, voluntary, half-day preschool for all 4 year olds in California.    Some say the bill was well designed, some say flawedReiner took an incredible amount of heat for backing the bill, was forced to resign his position on the First 5 board, and the bill failed miserably at the polls.  What?  Well, it turns out that preschool is surprisingly controversial.

Advocates of universally available preschool often cite studies showing that the foundation for academic success is laid down well before kindergarten starts.  They mention the Perry Preschool study, which showed that at-risk children who participated in high quality preschool programs were more successful later in life in holding down jobs and were less likely to be arrested for crimes than peers who did not attend.  The Head Start program, serving over 900,000 low-income children per year, has been criticized as having only fleeting benefits for children who attend.  That is, initial improvement in test scores for these children “fades out” over time.  Yet, when David Deming, an Assistant Professor from Harvard Graduate School of Education, looked at long-term benefits, such as the likelihood to graduate from high school, young adults who had attended Head Start did significantly better than siblings who did not attend.  The benefit was greatest for the most disadvantaged children.

Yet, it is argued by proponents of universally available preschool, it is not only disadvantaged children who would benefit from this program.  It is also the children of the middle class.  More and more middle class families have two parents working outside of the home.  Access to high quality childcare is still financially out of reach for many of these families.  Studies show a significant “school readiness” gap between even the children of the middle 20% of earners and the top 20%.  These children may derive significant benefits from having high quality publicly funded preschool available.  Finally, it is believed that universal preschool would be more widely supported by the public and therefore be of higher quality and of more benefit for the diverse group of children attending.

Opponents of universal preschool fall into one of two camps.  One group argues for expanding targeted preschool programs for disadvantaged children (e.g. Head Start) or providing subsidies for low-income families to attend already available private programs.  This group makes the argument that by funding universal preschool, government/society would be diluting the potential benefit that could be gained by giving funding to students who need it most at a lower overall cost.

The second group of opponents of publicly funded voluntary universal preschool are opponents of publicly funded early childhood education in general.  They argue that society should not throw more money at an education system that seems to be failing many older kids already.  They also argue that publicly funded preschool encourages the early “institutionalization” of children and state that universal preschool infringes on parents’ rights to determine the best educational path for their children.

I take care of a lot of 3 and 4 year olds in my practice.  The majority are what we’d call “underserved”- they come from hard-working, poor families.  Mostly minorities, many speak a language other than English.  When I ask about development, the parents proudly report that they are talking a lot, they love to sing.  They are sponges.  And, yet, many will not attend preschool.  Why?  The parents make too much money for Head Start, too little money for other schools, the kids are on a waiting list, the parent didn’t know how to apply, . . . and so the kids wait.  Most are waiting in relatively under-stimulating environments with high childcare provider to child ratio because that is all the family can afford.  A lot of these parents would love to spend more time reading to their children or playing with them, but they are working off hours or two jobs.  Meanwhile, up the road in a more affluent community, there are parents taking tours of various well-regarded preschool programs, asking questions about the curriculum, the outcomes.  The disparity is striking.

So, although it may get me into trouble in some circles, I’m just going to put it out there.  For me, the arguments against providing access to high-quality preschool for all kids ring hollow.  If you don’t want to send your kid to publicly funded preschool because you’re home with them, or have a fantastic nanny, or take them to play groups, or found an amazing private facility that you can afford, that’s great.  I support all families in doing what they feel is best for their children.  But, there are some kids out there that really, really need this opportunity.  We can argue all day about curriculums, and whether preschool is dead, and whether benefits of preschool are fleeting.  I would just like to see our society offer a stimulating, affordable place where kids, some of the most vulnerable among us, can go to play with other kids their age and maybe learn a few things.  A place where their parents can drop them off and feel secure in the knowledge that their child will be safe.  And, I’m willing to help pay for it.  Because, whether you believe it will benefit society in the long run or not (I do) it will help these families, and these children.  Isn’t that enough?  I’m with Kristof, let these children “board the (education) escalator”.

California has recently taken a big step in the right direction with The Kindergarten Readiness Act.  As part of this act California is creating a “transitional kindergarten” program for approximately 120,000 kids per year who just miss the age cut-offs for entering kindergarten.   Other states (Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Oklahoma, New Jersey) have enacted various types of universal preschool programs.  This is just the beginning of the conversation.  We don’t have all of the answers yet; targeted versus universal, public versus private/subsidized.  As in many areas of education policy, many questions remain.  But, let’s keep talking and let’s increase, not cut, funding for good research in this area.  The kids are waiting.

What do think about this issue?  Did you send your kids to preschool?  Given that I’m a relative outsider, I would love to hear from some early childhood educators.  What are your thoughts?


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