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Published in Print: April 20, 2005, as Flurry of Activity Taking Place on Prekindergarten Front

Flurry of Activity Taking Place on Prekindergarten Front

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An ideal “learning community” for a preschooler includes family members, provides children a chance to develop their social and physical abilities, builds early literacy and math skills, and is in some way connected to school, says a report from the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Released last week, the report also argues that elementary school principals should be playing a vital role in supporting and leading initiatives in early-childhood education.

The group’s position runs counter, though, to the way the new “universal” pre-K program in Florida, where principals will have minimal involvement, is being implemented.

For the most part, Florida’s nationally watched program—which voters approved in 2002 and is expected to attract more than 150,000 children—will be operated by private child-care and preschool providers. The main reason that most schools won’t be participating is that many are already too crowded to add classes of 4-year-olds.

State education officials, however, announced last week that more districts, if they choose, will be able to take part than previously thought. According to the Florida education department, 59 districts are now in compliance with the state’s separate voter-enacted mandate to reduce class sizes, making them eligible to be pre-K providers.

‘Unintended Consequence’

But another reason some potential Florida providers, including Roman Catholic schools, aren’t lining up for the prekindergarten push is that they don’t think the roughly $2,500 per child the state says it will spend on prekindergarten is enough to provide a high-quality program with adequately trained teachers.

The Florida Catholic Conference has also raised concerns about issues of equity.

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“Because the cost to provide a full-day academic pre-K program is substantially higher than the $2,500 that is proposed for a [universal pre-K] scholarship, those with means may be able to obtain slots by paying additional amounts,” says a position statement the conference put out in February. “This may have an unintended consequence of limiting options for children in working-poor families.”

But Gladys Wilson, the deputy director of the state’s new Office of Early Learning, said the pre-K law in Florida prohibits providers from excluding children from the program if their parents don’t sign up for additional fee-based services that the centers might offer.

She said that her office would soon begin running public-service announcements in English and Spanish to help inform the parents of the neediest children about the program. Children will be registered on a first-come, first-served basis.

State Measures

Florida is not the only place where policymakers are being confronted with the challenges of accommodating young learners. Several states and localities are moving forward with plans to expand or launch preschool programs.

In Los Angeles County, the local “First 5” commission, which uses tobacco-tax money to pay for early-childhood services, is in the midst of approving the first 100 sites that will offer the county’s new pre-K program. The commission is committing $600 million over five years to expand preschool countywide.

And on a broader scale, the actor and director Rob Reiner—who spearheaded the California measure that created the tax source for such services—is leading another campaign to pass a ballot initiative that would establish a universal pre-K program statewide.

Mr. Reiner and the California Teachers Association withdrew a measure from the statewide ballot last year that would have raised taxes on commercial businesses to pay for preschool—a plan that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and the business community opposed.

But for the revised initiative, which proponents are aiming to place on the June 2006 ballot, Mr. Reiner—a potential Democratic candidate for governor next year—has sought the support of not only the National Education Association affiliate, other teachers’ unions, and the early-childhood community, but business leaders as well.

“This is a much more balanced approach,” said Susanna Cooper, the spokeswoman for Preschool California, an Oakland-based advocacy group working to establish preschool for all 4-year-olds in the state.

The initiative would call for a pre-K program to be provided in both schools and community-based centers and integrated with child care in order to meet the needs of working parents.

Accountability provisions would also be written into the measure—safeguards that some critics say were insufficient in Mr. Reiner’s first ballot victory, the Proposition 10 tobacco tax.

Since 1999, that 50-cents-per-pack levy has been used to pay for programs serving children from birth through age 5. But some observers have questioned whether the money has been used wisely. More than $100 million of the $3.4 billion generated, for example, has been spent on advertising and public relations campaigns to promote early-childhood education.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, a state that has previously not been a leader in preschool, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson successfully pushed a pre-K bill through the legislature that will provide $5 million in fiscal 2006 for a preschool program. The governor wants the program eventually to be available to all 4-year-olds in the state. But the funding will initially be awarded to school districts, tribal governments, private preschool centers, and faith-based organizations in communities where elementary schools are not making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Most Republicans in the legislature opposed Mr. Richardson’s plan, charging that it was not carefully thought out and lacked an emphasis on literacy. Some New Mexicans also have questioned whether the state will have enough money to pay for the program over the long term.

Pre-K Quality

Many more state policymakers—encouraged by reports showing that preschool programs can save the public money in the future—are making the expansion of early-childhood services a priority. But some experts say states aren’t giving enough attention to the way those programs are designed.

For the past four years, researchers from the federally financed National Center for Early Development and Learning, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have examined state-financed pre-K programs. They’ve looked at how the classrooms are set up, where the children come from, and what the teachers are teaching them. The study focuses on four states—Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio—and large regions of California and New York.

“We wish we could report that state-funded pre-K programs are uniformly of high quality with exemplary classroom practices,” the authors write in the Spring 2005 issue of Early Developments, the center’s magazine. “Unfortunately, this is not the story we tell in this issue.”

The researchers say that because standards set for the programs were relatively high, they expected better classroom practices, such as using a variety of instructional methods to keep children interested and engaging them in extended group discussions to encourage problem-solving and build vocabulary.

Richard M. Clifford, a co-director of the UNC center, suggested that one reason quality was not as high as expected might be that the sample included a lot of half-day programs. With only two or three hours in the classroom, routine activities, such as arriving and departing, lining up for various tasks, and eating snacks or meals, quickly take up a lot of time and leave less for learning.

The researchers are now expanding their study to a second set of states: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. And they have hopes for what their project will contribute—particularly to states like New Mexico that are just getting started. “If we can find out what works,” they write, “others can advocate for it. If we find out what doesn’t work, perhaps our data will indicate how to improve the situation.”

Vol. 24, Issue 32, Page 6

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