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The proportion of Latino 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool declined from 2005 to 2009, though the rates of preschool enrollment for their African-American and white peers stayed the same during that period, according to findings released April 8 by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.
The decline in enrollment for Latino youngsters followed a dramatic increase in enrollment for all three groups of children from 1991 to 2005, though Latino enrollment still lagged well behind that of enrollment for black children and white children during that earlier period.
The good news, the study’s researchers write, is that enrollment for black children in preschool caught up with that of their white counterparts by 2005, and both groups kept parity through 2009.
“Until Latino children gain equal access to preschools that display robust quality, it’s difficult to see how early achievement gaps can be narrowed,” the researchers write in a two-page summary of their findings.
Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy, and Anthony Y. Kim, a doctoral student in quantitative methods, conducted the study of preschool enrollments.
The researchers suggest that state budget constraints caused by the recent recession may have led to the decline in preschool enrollment by Latinos. They note that steady increases in preschool spending by state governments helped boost enrollment of all children during the 1990s and through 2005.
“What may be happening is that as Latino moms have lost their jobs in the sluggish economy, they assume, ‘I’d rather have my child at home than in preschool,’ ” said Mr. Fuller. He said a lot of African-American mothers have also lost their jobs during the recession, but it appears they didn’t remove their children from preschool.
Mr. Fuller said the study didn’t explore whether the decline of Latino enrollment in preschool occurred more with children from low-income or higher-income families. “It may be that poor Latinos are able to keep these slots because they are publicly supported,” he suggested, “whereas blue-collar Latino moms who have lost their jobs in this recession can’t afford to pay fees for preschool.”
But enrollment for Latinos entering preschool may have declined in comparison with other groups because the number of Latino families increased overall faster than the number of slots open for preschool in their communities, speculated Linda M. Espinosa, a professor emeritus of early-childhood education at the University of Missouri, in Columbia.
“The supply is declining while this population is increasing,” Ms. Espinosa wrote in an email. “My hunch is that in many communities where Latino families are settling, there are inadequate numbers of centers that are culturally/linguistically appropriate.”
She said educators and policymakers should respond to the situation by targeting the communities where immigrant families live to expand access.
But Craig T. Ramey, a professor of psychology at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke, Va., said he doesn’t believe every child needs to be in an early-childhood program.
“There’s no question that being in a loving and resourceful family is every bit as good as the best we can provide in early-childhood education,” he said. Resourceful parents are every day teaching children the skills they need to do well in school, he added.
But at the same time, Mr. Ramey said, not every child has a parent who is preparing him or her for school, “so the early-childhood programs of high quality can have an added benefit that is really clear in terms of school readiness, language proficiency, prereading skills, and premath skills.”
Mr. Ramey characterized many Latino families as having a strong sense of family and said it is desirable for some Latino children to be at home with a parent rather than in preschool.
Mr. Fuller, however, said that studies cited in the notes of his research summary show that “especially Latino children from Spanish-speaking homes benefit from preschool more than the average child.”
He said that “in terms of childhood development, we’d like to see these children in high-quality preschool, whether the mom is at home or working outside the home.”
The UC-Berkeley study found that one-third of Latino 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 1991. That proportion increased to more than half, 53 percent, in 2005. The proportion of black 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool was 69 percent in 2005; for white children of the same age, the figure was 70 percent.
From 2005 to 2009, the proportion of Latino 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool dropped to 48 percent, or by 5 percentage points.
National surveys have shown that Latino preschool enrollment lags behind that of other groups because of a shortage of neighborhood slots, the tendency of Latino mothers to be less likely to work outside the home than black or white mothers, and the pattern of Latinos’ reliance on relatives for child care more than some other groups, the study says.
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study Finds a Drop in Percentage of Latinos in Preschools