Universal preschool is an international movement to use public funding to ensure high quality preschool (pre-k) is available to all families.
Publicly funded preschool in the US
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Citing international and domestic research showing a benefit to children from low and middle income families both in the short and long term, the movement to advance publicly funded pre-k has resulted in the successful passage of pre-k enabling legislation in 44 states in the US. While some funding legislation for pre-k has been passed on the federal level, including the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant, much of the advocacy focuses on building broad support from diverse leaders in business, child activists, educators, philanthropists, law enforcement, and healthcare to lobby state legislatures.
States use public dollars to fund pre-k programs in a variety of settings, including public schools, private non-profit and for-profit centers, and in regulated home childcare. Typically states fund preschool for three-, four-, and five-year-old children who have missed a cut-off date for enrollment in kindergarten. The hours range from 10 hours per week in Vermont, to full day programs in other states. Funding mechanisms vary as well, with some state utilizing a state budget line item versus a local budget appropriation.
While variations in implementation are numerous, state-funded pre-k consistently offer programs on a voluntary basis for children and families, unlike compulsory elementary, which is mandated by law with exceptions to allow for homeschooling and alternative education. Variations include how states deal with the following pre-k implementation elements:
- age of children eligible for the service of preschool (usually three-, four-, or five-year-olds, but sometimes only four-year-olds),
- wrap-around services, including whether special supports such as home visiting, and playgroups are provided to support children from at-risk families,
- full-day versus part-day pre-k, and whether programs should be offered year-round or only during the school year,
- role of parents in paying for part of their child's pre-k tuition,
- quality requirements for state-funded programs, including requirements for teacher education and preparation, class size, teacher to child ratios, and the use of evidence-based curriculum,
- whether universal state-funded programs should be provided in the existing diverse delivery system for early childhood programs (including Headstart, public schools, non-profit and for-profit centers, programs hosted by churches that are non-religious, or in home settings such as regulated family day care).
Supporters of publicly funded preschool for all children cite research that shows:
- Because the brain is developing rapidly during the early years, stimulation from high quality preschool can support the development of neurologic pathways that serve a child in lifelong learning,
- Longitudinal studies (Abecedarian, Chicago Parent Child Centers, and the Perry Preschool Project) show significant longterm benefits for children who attend preschool, including improved health, social and behavioral outcomes, and well as higher income than the control group.
- Advocates for those in poverty cite research related to the achievement gap, where many at-risk children start out behind in school for a variety of reasons and never catch up. Pre-k programs help to eliminate this gap.
- Business organizations cite the need for pre-k to improve school-readiness and literacy by age nine, in order to impact universal achievement of all children.
- The Information below was provided by: DLC | Model Initiatives | July 20, 2006
- Studies of high-quality preschool programs in North Carolina and Michigan have found that public investments in such programs could, in fact, deliver a 7-to-1 return in the long run, in the form of increased productivity and decreased social spending.
- A University of Georgia study found that the pre-k students improved their school readiness scores relative to national norms. It also found that the pre-k system eliminated the skills gap between universal pre-K students and the more affluent students whose parents sent them to private programs.
- A Georgetown University study found gains in the children's cognitive and language assessment scores from the Oklahoma pre-k program—particularly among African-American and Hispanic children, whose scores improved by an average of 17 percent and 54 percent, respectively. As of 2006, 98 percent of Oklahoma school districts offer pre-k programs, up 30 percent since 1998.
- The universal preschool movement started in France with Ecoles Maternelles in 1834.
- Various other European countries adopted some form of universal preschool, including Sweden.
- The movement gained ground in the United States as research showed that the high cost of high quality pre-k was beyond the ability of parents to pay, while the benefits from longitudinal studies showed societal benefits such as decreased crime, improved health, and greater earning capacity of children in later years.
- To date, various states have begun implementation of a Universal Preschool system including Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Illinois and others.
- New Jersey's program came out of a court decision based on the poor quality of education in large parts of the state (New Jersey Abbott versus Burke).
- Florida's Universal Preschool was established by constitutional amendment initiative approved by the voters that left much of the program to be implemented by the Governor and Legislature.
- Georgia dedicated their lottery profits for preschool.
- On June 6, 2006, California voters defeated an initiative for part day preschool for all four-year-olds as a constitutional right. The initiative proposed to include a tax on those in very wealthy income brackets. Those taxes were to be placed in a separate fund, and remain independent from the state budget. Text of the initiative can be found at California Preschool for All Act. Film director and actor, Rob Reiner, was a public advocate for the proposed program.
- Advocates formed the Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), an independent public benefit corporation created in 2004 and funded by First 5 LA. LAUP’s goal is to make voluntary, high-quality preschool available to every 4-year-old child in Los Angeles County, regardless of their family’s income, by 2014. LAUP is guided by a 10-year Master Plan developed by hundreds of educators, parents, government officials, and business and community leaders. Building on this plan, LAUP is bringing resources together from across the county in support of early childhood education. When LAUP has reached full scale, funded classrooms will serve more than 100,000 4-year-olds.
- The National Association for the Education of Young Children participated in a Governor's Forum on Quality Preschool held in December 2003. This organization stands on the principal that building on existing preschool providers and programs, including child care, Head Start and schools, will ensure a standard for high quality preschools.
- Illinois was the first state to offer voluntary preschool to all three- and four-year-olds whose parents want them to participate. Preschool for All was signed into law in July 2006, after a bill passed in the general assembly. When fully implemented, Preschool for All will ensure that 190,000 children in Illinois have access to high quality preschool. The legislature also approved $45 million in additional funding for the Early Childhood Block Grant to expand and enhance already established programs, and an 11% allotment of funds for birth- three children.
- Preschool for All programs are funded in a wide variety of child care and school settings. According to a 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, children are more likely to attend a center-based care program located in its own building (38 percent) than a center-based care arrangement in any other location, including churches, synagogues and other places of worship (25 percent), public schools (17 percent), private schools (9 percent), community centers (3 percent), and any other facility (10 percent). Directors of faith-based preschools and child care centers have voiced concern that Preschool for All will close down their programs. The concern is that, while other not-for-profit centers and for-profit centers can apply for the Early Childhood Block Grant, faith-based programs might not qualify, because they include Bible stories, prayer and worship songs in their curriculum. This matter has been addressed in a number of states, such as Illinois, where faith-based programs are eligible for Preschool for All funding for the part of the day that does not include religious instruction. Since Preschool for All is funded for a half day program in most locations, religious schooling can occur at other times during the day, and additional funding streams can be used to subsidize child care at those other times.
Opposition in the US
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- Assessment of program outcomes has been difficult, largely due to the lack of data and newness of universal pre-k around the nation. Studies in the US have not fully demonstrated the long term benefit of pre-k to middle income children, although studies in Australia and New Zealand with comparable demographics have.
- Critics have charged that the costs of universal pre-k could rise. Since the term "universal" means access for all children, the cost varies in proportional to the expected contribution by parents in addition to state funding, the number of hours for which a state provide funding, and whether qualifying programs have enough slots for all children.
- Since quality requirements stipulate certain standards, not all pre-k programs, especially those in private settings, are eligible. There remains a controversy about whether private providers will be driven out of business if local public schools offer full-day, tuition-free programs.
- Critics charge that where high quality publicly funded pre-k slots are limited, waiting lists can result in disadvantaged children competing with higher income children for preschool access. Some states provide an additional amount of tuition to help offset the special needs of at-risk children.
- Although no state mandates participation in programs, and even though some states provide funding for home-based pre-k programs, some conservatives argue that the responsibility for care and learning before kindergarten belongs solely to parents.
- In some states teachers unions are working with pre-k teachers to create early education unions, to allow for bargaining with state on pre-k reimbursements. At the same time, some teachers unions have opposed siting pre-k programs in private centers and homes, as a drain of public education resources and a potential open-door to school vouchers.