Universal preschool: Good idea, hard to do
Posted: March 9, 2013
The Winchester Star
Local school officials support President Barack Obama’s proposal for universal preschool, but say they have no money or space to make it happen.
In his State of the Union address Feb. 12, Obama called for quality preschool education for every child in the nation.
Increasing preschool attendance would reduce teen pregnancy and violent crime and increase the rate of high school graduation, while bridging the gap between disadvantaged and middle-class children, the president said.
Under the administration’s plan, federal dollars would go to states based on their share of 4-year-olds from lower-income families.
The proposal, while they consider it admirable, has local school administrators scratching their heads about its feasibility.
“I think it’s great and wonderful,” said city Schools Superintendent Rick Leonard. “I’d love to do it, but I don’t know how it’s going to be funded.”
Space and money shortages
State or federally funded preschools are few and the waiting lists are long.
The city School Board reduced its preschool program in fiscal year 2009 from five classrooms serving 90 students to two classrooms — one at Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary School and one at Quarles Elementary. The two classrooms serve 39 students.
Reducing the staff from five teachers to two, among other changes, saved the school system about $432,000.
Each of the division’s four elementary schools has five kindergarten classrooms.
Leonard said it would not be possible to add five preschool classrooms per school because of the amount of money needed to hire more teachers and teaching assistants.
More students would also require more classrooms in a division already experiencing overcrowding in all of its schools.
“Where are we able to put 400 more students?” he asked. “How are we going to serve them?”
In Clarke County, 30 preschool students attend an early-childhood special-education program and a 4-year-old preschool program — both held at Berryville Primary.
The two programs are targeted toward children with assessment-based needs or financial need.
“We used to have a bigger group at Primary, but it was slowly cut back due to budget cuts,” said Griff Carmichael, principal of D.G. Cooley Elementary School and Berryville Primary. “Every year, we end up turning people away.”
Clarke County Schools Superintendent Mike Murphy said implementing universal preschool would create resource and facility issues.
“From an educational perspective, I’m excited about the prospect,” he said. “But it’s going to be a challenge.”
The Frederick County schools do not operate a preschool program because of the cost.
The School Board’s priority is to implement full-day kindergarten by fall 2014.
Adding preschool programs would require more classrooms at nearly all of the county’s elementary schools. Preschool classrooms would have to be at least the size of kindergarten classrooms (roughly 1,000 square feet) and be equipped with a restroom.
Adding a preschool classroom at each of the county’s 11 elementary schools would require hiring 11 teachers and 11 classroom aides at a cost of just under $1 million annually.
Classroom equipment would cost an additional $13,000 per class (or $143,000).
“Frederick presently has no plans to explore adding preschool at this time,” said Peter Vernimb, assistant superintendent for instruction.
Separate from the local school systems is the federally funded Head Start program.
Called Apple Valley Head Start in this region, the program serves 162 children aged 3 to 5 in Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties. More than 130 children are on the waiting list.
The program, which has four locations throughout the area, teaches low-income children ABCs, shapes, colors and social etiquette, such as the proper way to wash their hands and stand in line.
Advocates of universal preschool say children who attended preschool had better reading, math and writing skills during elementary school and that early quality learning can lead to increased wages and college attendance rates later in life.
“The earlier you can intervene in a child’s life, the better,” said Carmichael. “At some point, you have to prepare kids for the future.”
The D.G. Cooley principal said failing to reach students at a young age can lead to a vicious cycle. When a child falls behind academically because he or she has received little to no support, he or she often becomes the parent of children who fall behind for the same reason.
In addition to academics, Carmichael said, he has seen other advantages of preschool, such as students being more comfortable when they enter kindergarten and families becoming more involved with the school and their child’s learning at an earlier stage.
“I’d love to have every kid start in preschool,” he said.
Frederick County’s Vernimb said the preschool program has merit.
“Other localities that have preschool have generally been pleased with student outcomes,” he said. “While it is true that the advantage the preschool provides certain students fades by the third grade, one must remember that without that boost, these students would still be greatly behind their peers.”
Adding universal day care would also ease the financial burden for caretakers paying for private day care or would allow more caretakers to work outside the home.
Some critics, however, argue that the cost of the program would be in the tens of billions of dollars.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, 45 percent of 4-year-olds and 20 percent of 3-year-olds went to state or federally funded preschool programs in 2011, which cost taxpayers about $5.49 billion.
Proponents, however, believe that this cost would be offset by the increase in the number of parents in the workforce who pay taxes.
Would it affect Head Start?
Another concern: Would implementing universal preschool would hurt the Head Start program, which serves the same population?
Head Start recently experienced a 5 percent decrease in funding as part of the government’s automatic spending cuts.
“We’re not sure how it will be affected,” Shannon Triplett, family and community partnership coordinator, said of the program’s fate.
Executive Director Thea Thomas said the program prepares not only children, but also the entire family.
“Any kind of preschool program is going to enhance a child’s readiness,” she said.
— Contact Rebecca Layne firstname.lastname@example.org