Wherever children live in the United States, and whatever their families’ incomes, public schools are available free of charge.
The same is not true of early-childhood education.
But three states--Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma--and the District of Columbia are moving in that direction. They have made the commitment to phase in free, publicly financed prekindergarten for any 4-year-old whose parents want it, regardless of their income or work status.
In all three states, public schools may offer prekindergarten directly, or private schools, community agencies, Head Start programs, and nonprofit and for-profit child-care centers may provide services, as long as they meet state standards.
Oklahoma districts also can hire teachers for placement in non-public-school settings. In both Georgia and New York state, a majority of services are now available outside the public schools.
Such programs are often called “universal” prekindergarten because no eligibility criteria exist beyond a child’s age. And they have often been promoted as a way to prepare all children for kindergarten on an equal footing.
But none of the programs is truly universal at this point.
Georgia’s program, which probably comes closest, currently serves more than 63,000 4-year-olds.
When combined with the enrollment in Head Start, about 70 percent of the 4-year-olds in the state are now in some form of publicly subsidized preschool.
While Georgia requires districts to offer prekindergarten, New York and Oklahoma have left it up to districts to decide whether they will provide such services with state funding.
“It’s optional. It’s available to all students, if it’s offered,” says David R. Denton, the director of school readiness for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, “and that’s a fundamental difference.”
In Oklahoma, just over half of all 4-year-olds participate in the program. New York serves about one-quarter of its 4 year-olds.
Cost an Issue
One of the biggest issues in deciding to make such programs free to all families, of course, is cost. New York’s universal prekindergarten program was supposed to reach every willing district in the state this year. But a budget battle in the legislature left the program with $225 million for 2001, instead of the planned $500 million. So 240 districts continue to await funding.
In Tennessee, a gubernatorial proposal to set up a state-financed prekindergarten program for all 4-year-olds within five years also fell victim to debates about how to pay for it.
“Money,” Denton sums up. “I think that’s seriously the main issue.”
Georgia’s program is paid for through a state lottery system and probably would not exist without it. But that may not be an option in other states.
To make high-quality early education available to all children from birth to age 5 whose parents want it would likely require a sliding-fee scale, argues Sharon Lynn Kagan, a professor of early-childhood and family policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. All but low-income families would bear at least some of the cost, based on their ability to pay.
“That’s what Georgia does not do,” Kagan says. “We don’t have a good model for doing that yet.”
“To me, a universal service is something that’s available to everybody,” says Joan Lombardi, the director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Children’s Project, which seeks to increase public and private spending on children’s services. “I think in early childhood, it would be nice if the goal was that it was free for everybody. Getting there is going to be a different story.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week