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States looking to expand preschool confront debate over results, funding

April 1, 2014 at 6:28 PM EDT
Around the country, 30 governors are proposing the expansion of preschool programs in their states. But what makes a pre-K program sufficiently educational? And how will the U.S. pay for these programs? Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters examines the debate over the value and the cost.

GWEN IFILL: Tens of thousands of parents in New York City will get a chance to send their children this fall to free full-time pre-kindergarten classes, thanks to a new $300 million state program announced jointly by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and city Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Educators hoping to expand pre-K on the national level are keeping an eye on cost and quality.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters has our report.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The problem is, we’re still not reaching enough kids, and we’re not reaching them in time.  And that has to change.

JOHN TULENKO: The president is talking about preschool. This year, federal spending on early childhood education, which had been around $7.5 billion, will increase by a billion more.

Preschool is also getting attention from big city mayors, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, D, N.Y.: We must achieve the tax plan I put forward for full-day pre-K for every child in this city.


JOHN TULENKO: Florida, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Georgia already offer preschool to everyone. And 30 governors are proposing to expand it in their states, so children get a boost.

STEVE BARNETT, Director, National Institute for Early Education Research: Kids develop better cognitive skills, and success breeds success.

JOHN TULENKO: Rutgers University Professor Steve Barnett has devoted his career to better understanding how preschool affects outcomes for children.

STEVE BARNETT: It’s not just about learning colors and shapes and letters and numbers. Those things are important, but it’s also learning about how to control my own emotions, how to get along with other people. And so you put all of that together, and those things can put kids on a much more successful life path than if they don’t have them.

JOHN TULENKO: But, as Barnett’s research has shown, all that depends on having quality preschool programs. And he’s concerned that in some states today, the most politicians are doing is talking up a good game.

STEVE BARNETT: Most 4-year-olds who go to preschool programs go to programs that aren’t good. I think it’s a kind of bait and switch. It’s easy to make a commitment and not put enough money behind it. And it’s very difficult for parents to know that their state is not actually doing what they say they are.

JOHN TULENKO: Barnett worries in particular about California, Texas, and Florida.

STEVE BARNETT: The standards are so low, it’s questionable whether you should call it preschool education.

JOHN TULENKO: What does it look like?

STEVE BARNETT: You have a teacher who has — with no qualifications requirements, no limits on class sizes or ratio. States pay $2,300 a child, which is less than a quarter what kindergarten costs. It’s hard to believe it’s more than baby-sitting.

JOHN TULENKO: Ten states don’t even offer that: They have no public preschool. Among the others, 27 make it free only to families near or below the poverty line.

That helps explain why public preschools enroll only about a quarter of the nation’s eight million 3- and 4-year-olds. A few of those lucky children go to this preschool center in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Here, preschool is free, regardless of income.

Jeri Mast is the director.

DR. JERI MAST, Director, Edmund Hmieleski Early Childhood Center: We are teaching everything, the language, the literacy, the math, so that they’re more academically prepared for school.

JOHN TULENKO: Children can be here from 7:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night, getting more than academics.

DR. JERI MAST: Most children in our schools will get two-thirds of their food intake here at school. We can get kids coats and hats, mittens when it’s cold. We’re a full-service operation.

JOHN TULENKO: Classes here are small: one fully licensed teacher and an aide for every 15 children. The center has a well-equipped playroom, technology and other extras.

All this costs about $13,000 per child per year, money Perth Amboy gets from a class-action lawsuit it filed several years ago against the state of New Jersey. The rest of the country will have to find other ways to pay for preschool.

Where will the money come from for that?

STEVE BARNETT: It comes out of general revenues. We have been talking about it being expensive. It’s not a lot of money. The federal tax break that allows hedge fund managers to pay 15 percent income tax basically costs $83 billion a year. We could provide preschool to all our kids for far less money than that.

JOHN TULENKO: Last year, President Obama asked for $75 billion, funded by a proposed federal tax on cigarettes, to roughly double the number of children in preschool over the next decade. Lawmakers rejected it.

REP. JOHN KLINE, R, Minn.: We shouldn’t just be grabbing new ideas and creating new programs and adding to the debt.

JOHN TULENKO: Opponents included Republican Congressman John Kline, who did vote yes on the far more modest $1 billion increase in federal funds for preschool, as part of the budget that passed in January.

REP. JOHN KLINE: We’d like to see pre-K programs that work, because there is growing evidence, and it’s recognized on both sides of the aisle, that early childhood learning is worthwhile, but let’s just don’t grab a new program and start trying to fund it.

JOHN TULENKO: But preschool might actually save taxpayers money, according to Steve Barnett.

STEVE BARNETT: Kids who went to preschool, they need far less special education. They’re far less likely to fail and repeat. You add all that up, and that’s going to outweigh the cost of the preschool program by itself.

JOHN TULENKO: And, he says, that’s just the start of the savings.

STEVE BARNETT: The big part comes later on, because kids are less involved in crime, delinquency. They’re productive in the work force. They have lower health care costs. Those are the big long-term savings.

JOHN TULENKO: But critics argue the long-term gains rest on thin evidence, and short-term gains have come under scrutiny too.

REP. JOHN KLINE: Kids are really not ready for school, and you know there’s a famous study that says, by the time you get to the third grade, it doesn’t matter anyway.

JOHN TULENKO: Kline is referring to a 2012 study of Head Start, the federal preschool program. It found children’s early gains in language and reading had virtually disappeared by the end of third grade.

The reason for that, the authors say, is that many children who didn’t go to preschool quickly catch up. But it’s also possible the children who did go are slowing down. With overcrowded classes and fewer support staff, the lingering effects of the recession, instructional quality in many elementary schools has suffered.

STEVE BARNETT: It’s like a relay race. You can’t say, I ran a really good first lap, so now I can walk the next one. All right. You’re going to lose the race if you do that. Well, preschool is the same way. It’s a really good first lap. You have to keep running hard.

JOHN TULENKO: Barnett hopes the improving economy and bipartisan support in many places will keep up the momentum and public moneys for high-quality preschool and beyond.