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Education Reporter

Universal Preschool Gains Momentum
Benefits Debated; High Expulsion Rate; Head Start Deficiencies
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Universal tax-supported preschool and full-day kindergarten moved ahead in more states this summer as part of a nationwide trend to expand early-childhood public education. While support for such programs by governors appears strong, they are expensive and there is little consensus among researchers on the programs' long-term benefits to children.

Vermont in June became the fifth state to enact universal preschool, acting without floor debate in the legislature or voter approval through initiative. Quietly added to an appropriations bill by a conference committee, the new law expands access to a statewide education fund that had previously been limited to programs for children from low-income families or with limited English proficiency. By enabling districts to add two more grades below kindergarten, the law is expected to cost taxpayers an additional $40 to 70 million per year.

The Vermont law encourages "collaboration" between public school systems and licensed private daycare centers, but does not mandate it. Critics note that the law could drive hundreds of independent preschool providers out of business by attracting most of their clients into "free" public programs.

"Few legislators clearly understood that this was happening. It was accomplished completely below the radar of public and legislative debate, with almost zero attention from the news media," wrote John McClaughry, former vice chair of the Vermont senate education committee and president of the Ethan Allen Institute. (Barre Times Argus/Rutland Herald, 7-3-05)

Urged on by Gov. Bill Richardson, New Mexico in March passed a preschool bill establishing a $5 million pilot program. The governor's avowed goal is to provide preschool "for every child."

Gov. Richardson "has ruined education in the last two years," Maude Rathgeber, a former teacher who serves as president of New Mexico Eagle Forum, told the Education Reporter. In addition to backing public preschool, the governor successfully pushed to abolish the elected state school board and recently called for elimination of the state higher education commission.

40 states fund some preschool 
New York, Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma formally guarantee pre-kindergarten for all children, although funding and available space fall short of making that guarantee a reality. Forty states and the District of Columbia sponsor preschool programs, up from ten in 1980. Most federal and state programs target poor children.

The Census Bureau estimates that in 2003 nearly 60% of all eligible children were enrolled in public or private preschool, more than twice the percentage in 1980. There are still more children in private than in public preschools. (See Education Reporter, Mar. 2005.)

Nationwide proposal 
A proposal for nationwide universal preschool and full-day kindergarten was announced in late August by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, as co-chair of an education policy task force with ties to the Democratic Party. The plan also recommends a longer school year, a uniform national suggested curriculum for core courses, and use of schools for social services to parents. The estimated cost is a whopping $325 billion in federal money over the next 10 years, which the task force suggested could be generated by avoiding tax cuts proposed by Republican leaders. Gov. Napolitano has already established state-funded all-day kindergarten in Arizona.

CA mulls expensive plan 
California voters will consider a universal preschool ballot initiative in June 2006. The measure, backed by actor/director Rob Reiner, would cost $2.3 billion a year and would require pre-K teachers to have a bachelor's degree. The Reiner initiative even requires paying pre-K teachers on a par with high school science and math teachers. Funding would come from taxes on the superrich. (Los Angeles Times, 5-5-05)

Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University issued a study in May warning that the push to require a four-year degree is not supported by solid research. Such a standard is "very expensive and yields no consistent improvement for young children when compared to those kids whose teachers have two-year degrees and training in child development." The researchers, led by Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, also argue that there is no proof that children learn more in school-based programs than they do in other settings.

Supporters of the California proposal point to a study released by the Rand Corp. in March touting the benefits of universal preschool for 4-year-olds in reducing special-education needs, juvenile arrests, and holding children back a grade.

But as a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times noted, "The Rand study based its claims of cost savings on "high-quality" preschool programs, and that is my major concern. California has proved itself incapable of providing high-quality elementary, middle or high school programs. Why should we believe it will do better with preschool?" (4-2-05)

'Constitutional right to preschool'? 
One legal scholar, James E. Ryan of the University of Virginia law school, argues that "a very strong legal case, based on education clauses within every state constitution, can be made on behalf of a state constitutional right to preschool." (University of Virginia Legal Working Paper Series, 6-22-05)

Full-day kindergarten is coming soon to Oklahoma now that Gov. Brad Henry persuaded legislators to appropriate $145 million for that purpose this summer.

Reacting to the growing trend toward state funding of pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council in May approved model legislation to maximize efficiency for taxpayers and parental satisfaction with such programs. Its Smart Start Scholarship Program offers choices between full- and half-day kindergarten, full-time or flexible preschool schedules, and private preschool providers.

High expulsion rate 
Preschool children are three times as likely to be expelled as K-12 children, according to the first national study of pre-K expulsion rates, researchers from the Yale Child Study Center reported in May. On average, boys are expelled at 4.5 times the rate of girls, African-Americans at twice the rate of Latinos and Caucasians, and 4-year-olds at 1.5 times the rate of 3-year-olds.

The study was based on a telephone survey of 4,815 state-financed pre-K classrooms. It is estimated that more than 5,000 preschool children are expelled each year. To minimize expulsions, Tufts Educational Day Care in Somerville, MA actually has unruly 5-year-olds sign "contracts" promising such things as "I will not scream, try to hit, or say you're not my boss." (Boston Globe, 6-2-05)

Benefits questioned 
The benefits of preschool, even for disadvantaged children, are debatable. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper concluded earlier this year that early education does boost reading and mathematics skills at school entry, but also increases children's classroom behavioral problems and reduces their self-control. "Further, for most children the positive effects of pre-kindergarten on skills largely dissipate by the spring of first grade, although the negative behavioral effects continue." (NBER Working Paper No. 10452)

A review of full-day kindergarten research likewise found fleeting benefits: "Research shows that most full-day kindergarten students demonstrate somewhat higher academic and social achievement than half-day kindergarten students; however, the higher academic achievement seems to diminish somewhat over time," concluded a February 2001 report prepared for the Kansas Department of Education.

Not much of a Head Start 
The federal government released a report on a long-term study of the $6.7 billion Head Start program in June, finding that the program didn't affect preschoolers in half of the 30 categories measured, including most behavioral areas. It helped 4-year-olds in only 6 of the 30 categories. A sizable reading readiness gap remains, and the program has no effect on premath skills.

Head Start also faces congressional allegations of financial mismanagement and embezzlement in some local programs.

The Bush administration advocates sending Head Start money to states to dole out instead of directly funding local grantees from Washington. Governors active in the National Governors Association have proposed streamlining the 69 federal programs spread across nine departments or agencies dealing with children under age 5.

10 letters of the alphabet 
1998 federal legislation established academic standards for Head Start, including the expectation that all Head Start children learn at least 10 letters of the alphabet. Testing for reading and math readiness was beefed up in the past year.

As academic pressure increases on the youngest learners, so does the idea of "toddler tutoring" for overanxious affluent families. Programs known for boosting older children's academic achievement — such as Sylvan, Kumon and Kaplan — are now offering tutoring programs for children as young as 2. Sylvan typically charges about $45 an hour. (Wall Street Journal, 7-12-05)

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