Tensions Surface In Public-Private Preschool Plans

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Two years ago, school officials in Vineland, N.J., launched an expensive and intensive preschool program as part of their response to a 30-year-old legal battle over the educational needs of students in poor, urban school districts.

So when the state supreme court last year ordered the state to provide preschool in Vineland and 29 other poor city districts by the start of this school year, the district asked the state for permission to expand the program. Vineland's initiative aims to make its 3- and 4-year-olds just as ready for kindergarten as children from wealthier areas.

Tips for Working Together

Local advisory councils--including such representatives as superintendents, child-care directors, and parents--can make collaborations between public schools and child-care providers run more smoothly, a soon-to-be released report by the Children's Defense Fund says.

In addition, says the report, "State Prekindergarten Initiatives 1998-99," states can remove some of the obstacles by:

  • Incorporating requirements for local planning directly into their prekindergarten statutes;
  • Establishing clear guidelines on the groups and interests to be represented on local planning councils, the councils' responsibilities, and the goals of the planning process, among other elements;
  • Offering training, guidance, and technical assistance to help local communities deal with obstacles to collaboration; and
  • Providing funding to address gaps identified by local planning efforts.

The report is scheduled for release later this month and will be available for $7.95, plus shipping and handling. For information, call the CDF Publications Department at (202) 628-8787.

But the Vineland model, which costs $15,000 per pupil, doesn't meet New Jersey's requirement that districts primarily rely on existing child-care providers in their communities. As a result, the district has reluctantly signed contracts with 10 local centers--facilities that Vineland officials say do not meet high standards.

Farther north in Newark, the Ironbound Community Corp., a nationally accredited child-care agency, is one of about 50 providers in the city that originally refused to sign contracts with the Newark public schools to provide the preschool program.

The centers had been told that the state was willing to provide $8,000 per child, instead of the $9,000 that the centers proposed--a figure the providers believe is still lower than what they need to offer the comprehensive services required by the court. The centers eventually agreed to serve the children, but their per-pupil funding is still under negotiation.

Both situations illustrate the difficulties that can arise when the traditionally separate worlds of public education and community-based child care collide. As more states move to implement prekindergarten programs, such collisions are becoming more common as state officials force those two systems to work together, despite their different regulations, different pay scales, and often different expectations.

The hope is to draw on the strengths of both spheres--the highly structured public schools and the far less formal and largely private world of early-childhood education. Using the existing child-care network allows states to implement their programs more quickly.

But compelling the two sectors to cooperate--sometimes in a pressure-cooker atmosphere--has thrown their distinctive cultures into sharp relief.

"It's an old fight, being played on new ground, with a speed-up," said Elaine Zimmerman, the executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, an arm of the state legislature.

Turf Battles

School officials, for their part, sometimes view what goes on in child-care centers as less than educational. For children to have a successful transition into kindergarten, they argue, preschool programs should be in--or closely tied--to the school.

In the case of the Vineland program, Superintendent Gerald Kohn says its integration into the school setting is a key to its success. "We are running the program out of the school site, with school staff, paying union wages," he noted.

Child-care professionals, on the other hand, say they would love to provide higher-quality programs, have certified teachers, and build state-of-the-art facilities, if only they had the resources. Some providers also see school districts' growing involvement in early-childhood education as a real threat to their business.

In no state have such tensions been more prevalent lately than in New Jersey, where the high court, rather than a politically popular initiative, has thrust a new responsibility on urban school leaders. In addition to the 30 "special needs" districts affected by the court's ruling in the Abbott v. Burke school funding case, there are another 100 in which preschool for 4-year-olds will be required over the next few years.

Districts like Vineland, in an attempt to comply with the court's Abbott ruling, asked the state to approve preschool plans last year that often called for additional facilities and included nutrition programs, health care, and social services.

Many of the districts' plans were based on a study of their preschoolers' needs that was conducted by the Center for Early Education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. On average, the assessment found, students in the Abbott districts were 18 months behind the national norm on a developmental test.

The state, however, denied many of those plans. It said that districts were exceeding the requirements of the Abbott decision and that only minimal funding was available to pay for certified teachers, staff training, or help in attaining accreditation of programs.

So about a month ago, the Education Law Center of Newark, acting for the plaintiffs in the finance case, filed another motion, accusing the state of backing away from providing the program it promised. The center also asked the supreme court to appoint a judge to monitor the state's actions.

"In short, the state has substantially and fundamentally altered every component of the preschool education program that the commissioner [of education] assured this court the state would provide," the motion contends.

State officials maintain that their plan meets the requirements of the court order and will exceed it in the next three to five years.

An Aug. 23 statement by state leaders called the motion "a last-minute attempt ... to disrupt the start of New Jersey's early-childhood program."

"The resulting confusion and disruption will undermine the progress we have made toward the ultimate goal of a seamless system of early-childhood services," Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe said.

Collaboration Urged

More than 40 states now offer some form of publicly subsidized prekindergarten. But according to a 1998 report by Anne Mitchell, the founder of Early Childhood Policy Research in Climax, N.Y., only seven of them required school districts to be the only agencies to operate the programs.

Many states allow districts to subcontract with other providers or allow providers to receive money directly from the state.

A soon-to-be-released report on prekindergarten initiatives, from the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, recommends such collaboration between schools and other agencies. One of the hallmarks of a strong prekindergarten initiative, the report says, is providing state funding to a range of providers, including child-care centers, Head Start programs, and public schools.

"Community collaboration allows people representing a variety of programs and sectors to assess what supports children and families need, what resources are available in their own community, and what new resources are necessary," the report says.

For practical reasons, collaboration can be at least a short-term approach to securing adequate facilities, because programs can operate in existing centers, instead of hard-to-find school space. And if those providers are already serving the eligible children, parents don't have to move them.

Still, advocates and providers say it's a mistake to assume that centers won't also need to expand their facilities as such programs grow. What surprised state officials in New Jersey, said Steven Barnett, the director of the Rutgers University center, is that "child-care programs can't provide the same services significantly cheaper than the public schools."

Last month, Commissioner Hespe announced a $12 million grant program to upgrade child-care facilities. But Steve Block, the director of school reform initiatives at the Education Law Center, said that amount was insufficient and might help only a few centers.

Collaboration is also seen as a way to meet the needs of parents who work full time. Children who attend a state-financed half-day preschool program in a child-care center can simply remain there for the rest of the workday, often with the same teacher. That can eliminate midday transportation problems and stressful transitions.

But as people in New Jersey watch the implementation of the new pre-K program, many have formed less positive opinions about collaboration.

"We thought it would eliminate this split between early care and education," said Ceil Zalkind, the associate director of the Association for Children in New Jersey, an advocacy organization. "I'm afraid that what we're seeing is collaboration being used to save money instead of being used to raise standards."

Conflicting Regulations

Staff-credentialing and compensation issues play major roles in hindering collaboration and contributing to tension between child-care providers and public school educators.

"The contradiction comes to a head at this point," said Marcy Whitebook, a co-director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce, a Washington group that seeks to improve pay and working conditions for child-care providers.

A pre-K teacher in a school and one in a child-care center might be providing the same program, but their educational levels and annual salaries could be vastly different. For example, some states require prekindergarten teachers to have bachelor's degrees, but many others do not.

The result, according to an article in the workforce center's upcoming newsletter, is that "a pre-K paycheck often looks like earnings in other child-care programs, which have been found to average nationwide at $7 to $9 per hour--closer to 'parity' with parking lot attendants ($7.06) than with kindergarten teachers ($19.85)."

When center teachers do earn four-year degrees, it's natural for them to seek employment in the public schools, where they often can make twice as much money, work fewer hours, and receive far better benefits. Centers, as a result, lose some of their best-trained teachers.

School districts also have a tax base that can be used to supplement state pre-K funding. Other than parent fees, centers usually have no other source of income.

Despite the problems, educators and child-care providers who have developed good working relationships say it's worth the effort.

For example, the law governing New York's universal-prekindergarten program required each district to contract out only 10 percent of its state pre-K grant to other agencies. But during the 1998-99 school year--the program's first year of implementation--40 percent of the 18,305 participating preschoolers were served by nonschool providers.

When school officials and child-care providers sat down together, "they found they had more in common than they ever thought," said Margretta Reid Fairweather, the outgoing team leader of the child, family, and community-services branch of the New York education department. She was recently appointed by Mr. Hespe to serve as the new assistant commissioner for early-childhood education in New Jersey.

The Plainfield, N.J., school system, now one of the 30 Abbott districts, was removed from the lawsuit for several years and so did not have to put together its pre-K program as quickly as the other districts. Given that extra time, school officials there began meeting with child-care-center directors, mostly to help ease the transition for children coming into the district's new full-day kindergarten program.

But now those contacts--which included some first-time visits to local child-care centers by elementary school principals--are paying off.

This fall, the district will serve 105 4-year-olds at six centers that are either accredited or are working toward their accreditation. Teachers in these state-funded programs must have at least a two-year degree, as well as child-development training.

Raising Quality

One of the benefits of such arrangements--and some argue that it's the main point of collaboration--is the improvement of the child-care field. Involvement with the public education system often means that programs are required to be nationally accredited and that their teachers must be better educated, for example.

In Missouri, it was the potential to improve the quality of early-childhood education that lawmakers emphasized when crafting the new Missouri Preschool Project. A minimum of 10 percent of aid that any district or provider receives through the program must be spent on improvements.

Collaboration can also benefit children, according to another report being released this fall by the New York City-based Child Care Action Campaign.

In "Partnering for Success: Community Approaches to Early Learning," the group examined 68 early-childhood initiatives that involve partnerships between public schools, child-care providers, and Head Start agencies.

A majority of the programs profiled reported that student performance in elementary school improved after the partnerships began. Close to half of the programs saw improvements in reading, and more than half reported better student behavior. Some also reported a decline in retention rates.

"The pooling of financial and human resources seen in these collaborations creates a service system that is greater than the sum of its parts," the report says.

Judith Hurle, the director of early-childhood programs for the Bridgeport, Conn., schools, has witnessed the process of improvement occur since her state started its new school-readiness program in 1997.

After visiting one center that had applied for the program, Ms. Hurle said she hesitated to grant the application because of what she saw: no playgrounds, televisions on, and children doing worksheets. But Ms. Hurle ultimately decided, "We can always not fund them, but we can't always influence them," and the contract was approved.

Now, the whole staff is enrolled in college, the center has two playgrounds, and on a recent visit, Ms. Hurle saw the children enjoying an aquarium and catching butterflies. There are plenty of books and blocks, and a small kitchen area for the children.

The state's program "is giving us a well-equipped center because now we have all the physical things that preschool children need," said Debra Buster, the center's director. "You can see the development in the children."

Vol. 19, Issue 2, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as Tensions Surface In Public-Private Preschool Plans
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