Universal preschool is an international movement to make access to preschool available to all families.
Child advocates and other members of this movement differ in terms of how they define who should be included and how it should be funded. There has been a proposal to change the name to "preschool for all", as they have named the program in the U.S. state of Illinois. Like kindergarten, the concept is to have a voluntary program, unlike compulsory elementary, that is mandated by law with exceptions to allow for homeschooling and alternative education. Advocates have argued over:
- the age of children eligible for the service of preschool (with some taking the more traditional view that priority should be provided to children four years of age and others believing that brain development dictates that learning begins at birth and declines significantly by age eight),
- the requirement for full-day rather than part-day preschool (based on the needs of different family structures such as two parent family, single parent family, foster care, guardianship, or kinship care),
- the suitability of the American Head Start program as a model (in terms of parent involvement and education, social services and a family focus),
- whether universal preschool should be provided privately or by the state (via public schools) or the existing diverse delivery system (preschools currently may be provided by public, nonprofit, church related, private for-profit, or in home settings such as family day care).
Supporters note that:
- Research based studies (e.g., the Perry Preschool Project) that show significant positive outcomes for children who attend preschool, especially children who are "at risk."
- Public School reformers who feel that many children start out behind in school for a variety of reasons, including lack of social skills, not knowing English or lack of experience in a group educational setting.
- Advocates who see society as having a responsibility to all children
- The rate of return for preschool in later years for children who have access to preschool.
- 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.
- Oklahoma's system has gotten impressive results. A Georgetown University study found gains in the children's cognitive and language assessment scores—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.
- This allows the children of the community to get preschool from a school district that is free to all children.
- This allows children to have a school setting and get to know the school and the children that they will be attending school with.
- The free programs help those in need of preschool by assessing them and making sure that the child is developing at the right pace for preschool.
- 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 public opinion changed from viewing young children as the responsibility of only families to viewing it as a shared responsibility between families and society. To date, various states have begun implementation of a Universal Preschool system including Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Illinois and others. Many programs have been started by the Legislature and Governor. 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 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 soundly defeated an initiative that would have established part day preschool for all four year olds as a constitutional right. The initiative included an unusual provision that imposed a dedicated tax on those in very wealthy income brackets. Those taxes were to be placed in a separate fund, and remain independent to the state budget. Text of the initiative can be found at California Preschool for All Act. The initiative was sponsored by film director and actor, Rob Reiner
- Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) is an independent public benefit corporation created in 2004 and funded by First 5 LA – the commission established by Proposition 10. 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.
- Studies have not fully demonstrated the improvement in outcomes after Oklahoma and Georgia implemented universal preschool programs due to the small number of groups measured. As the data for these states is very new, a full analysis of the impact of their programs will not be available for at least 20 to 25 years until adulthood lifestyle is able to be assessed.
- Critics have charged that the costs of universal preschool are often underestimated. One example cited is from an assessment of a universal day care program in Quebec which found the final price tag for Quebec's day care program to be 33 times what was originally projected. It had grown from a projected $230 million over five years, to annual costs of $1.7 billion. Much of this increase was attributed to higher operating costs, including large wage increases for child care workers (40 percent increase over four years).
- Critics charge that long waiting lists result in disadvantaged children competing with higher income children for preschool access. In Quebec low-income households lost their child care tax deductions as they were discontinued in order to finance the universal preschool program. Yet with access to the universal preschools limited, the children of low-income households were underrepresented in the Quebec program, with half its day care spaces taken by families in the top 30 percent income bracket.
- Some home schooling advocates have argued that children should be educated by their families and not by the state.
- Some political activists have argued that the state should not provide such services, or that those services should remain privatised. Others opposed complain of the taxes imposed to fund such programs, or argue that tax revenues should be redirected to other programs
- Some independent preschool providers have argued universal preschool programs pose an economic threat to private providers (note that this is an implementation detail which is sidestepped by the adoption of a preschool voucher program)