Early Childhood

Report Details Features of Effective State Pre-K Programs

By Linda Jacobson — March 07, 2001 6 min read
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States wanting to start or expand education programs for 4-year-olds should link those efforts to broader school improvement plans, direct their services toward at-risk children initially, and set standards for teachers working in preschool classrooms, a report suggests.

The report, which examines prekindergarten initiatives in five states and was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, identifies factors that either hindered or helped a state’s efforts to offer effective programs.

Led by James J. Gallagher, a senior scientist at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, the researchers studied what had happened in Georgia, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, and Texas. Researchers chose those states because they have diverse demographic characteristics and have made significant progress in establishing preschool programs.

The report, which was released last month, reveals some common factors that contributed to the success of the states’ programs.

In all five states studied, the researchers found, political leaders were instrumental in building public support for the pre-K programs. In two of the states, Georgia and South Carolina, the governors made such programs a top priority. In other places, influential legislators led the way.

For More Information

The report, Education for Four Year-Olds: State Initiatives, as well as an executive summary, is available from the National Center for Early Development & Learning. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.).

“It was unclear what could be done in the absence of such political leadership,” the authors write.

The states were also careful to consider the interests of the various providers of child care and early-childhood education, and formed partnerships with them to offer the new state-supported programs. The partnerships were intended to put aside fears that the state programs would put private-sector providers out of business.

“These providers had to be convinced that no harm would come to them or their interests from this prekindergarten program,” the report says.

Funding Differences

The researchers also found significant differences in the way states handled certain aspects of the programs, especially financing.

For instance, in Georgia, a lottery is the source of prekindergarten funding. But in Texas, the program has been in place for so long—more than 15 years—that it’s “embedded” in the state’s education budget, Mr. Gallagher said.

“It’s going to get money just like the 5th grade is going to get money,” he said.

But in other states, prekindergarten is financed separately from K-12 education, which the report suggests makes the longevity of the pre-K programs less secure.

Another difference was in how gradually or rapidly the programs have grown.

In both Illinois and Texas, the prekindergarten programs developed over several years. But in Georgia, it took leaders a relatively short amount of time, about two years, to change the program from one that served just poor children to one that offered access to all 4-year-olds throughout the state.

“There are advantages in both approaches,” the authors write. “On one hand, the gradual approach allows states to reach agreements with the various professional groups in the states and to get the general public accustomed to the program. On the other hand, the passage of time allows opposition to coalesce and build their case with the public against the program.”

In South Carolina and Texas, for example, and to some extent in Georgia, conservative Christian groups protested against such programs, saying that they could undermine family values. The groups argued that children were better off spending time with their parents than in child- care or early-childhood centers.

Managing the Programs

Lastly, the researchers found differences in how the programs are administered at the state level.

Only Georgia has an office that is separate from the department of education. The office runs the pre-K program and is responsible for other child-care programs in the state.

In the four other states studied, staff members inside the state education departments direct the programs.

In Texas, for example, the researchers noted that one of the major obstacles for the program was that the state education agency’s early-childhood-education department had only one employee. The researchers also found a lack of early- childhood professionals in the regional resource centers around the state, which are field offices that provide administrative and technical support to school districts.

The prekindergarten program in Texas, which serves more than 140,000 children deemed at risk for performing poorly in school, was in place long before President Bush was governor there.

But the authors note that Mr. Bush’s emphasis on early reading skills, a priority he has brought with him to the White House, led to greater support for the program.

Universal Pre-K?

Some experts in early-childhood education have said they don’t expect many states to follow the example of Georgia, which offers preschool educational services to any family regardless of its income.

Even so, the new report found that universal preschool remains the ultimate goal in the five states studied.

“These states appear to be well on the way to universal prekindergarten services as soon as they find a way to finance the program,” according to the report.

And Mr. Gallagher added: “We had people from Illinois who said that the moment they have a chance to do it, they’ll do it.”

What’s more, the states involved in the study aren’t the only ones where preschool education has become a higher priority.

In January, Gov. Gray Davis of California, for example, announced plans to form a school- readiness task force that will look for ways to provide local communities with resources “to help prepare our children for a lifetime of learning and success.”

“Too many children step aboard a school bus for the first time without developing a solid foundation for learning right from the start,” the Democratic governor said during his State of the State Address.

Revenue generated by California’s Proposition 10, the 1998 ballot initiative that imposed a new, 50-cent tobacco tax to help pay for early-childhood programs, will likely be one source of funding, according to the governor.

Other Research

The report, “Education for Four-Year-Olds: State Initiatives,” is just one of a variety of prekindergarten-research projects being conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Center, which is also the site of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Early Development and Learning.

Mr. Gallagher and his colleagues will conduct a follow-up study on the five states covered in the report. In the upcoming study, they plan to look beyond the policies that have been adopted and ask questions about how the programs are being carried out.

Beyond that, Richard Clifford, a senior scientist at the center, is beginning a six-state study of pre-K programs that are affiliated with public schools. He’ll begin collecting data next fall, and the first results are expected in the summer of 2002.

At least a few of the states in Mr. Gallagher’s study will also be a part of that project, but the list of states is not yet final.

In addition, center researchers have conducted a survey of all 50 states and the District of Columbia to ask questions about prekindergarten programs that are linked to public schools. Results of that project, which will include information on such topics as eligibility requirements for children and state funding for the programs, will be released next month.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Report Details Features of Effective State Pre-K Programs

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