The Education Budget: Where Would You Start?

Amy Rees
May 17, 2009

Do you ever daydream about winning the lottery? Where would you start? What you would buy/donate/pay off/put aside/set up first? 

Imagine, if you will, an opportunity to tell the national lottery (a.k.a. the annual federal budget) where to start when it comes to early childhood education. Oh -- and yes -- this is no lottery. This is real. This is cold, hard, taxpayer-earned cash. What would you do first, if you were in charge?

President Obama is interested in early childhood education for your state, your local schools and families. He explained: "That is why I am issuing a challenge to our states. Develop a cutting-edge plan to raise the quality of your early learning programs. Show us how you'll work to ensure that children are better prepared for success by the time they enter kindergarten."

If you ran the zoo -- I mean, if you were in charge, what would you do?

Our founder and CEO, Stacey Boyd, argues that any answer must start with universal pre-K. Her civil-rights argument is laid out below, and we hope Washington takes up her challenge.

And if you had Stacey's preschools to fund, what would you do?  We asked some of our Savvy-est minds that question. 

From Being Savvy St. Louis, the answer was outreach. "I would use the money to reach out to families whose children are not currently enrolled in pre-school programs. In my district, preschool is not provided for children through the public schools so it is up to parents to prepare their children for kindergarten. Parents may not know that their children may be eligible for free preschool through the district if their child is delayed in an educational area. For example, a child with a speech delay may qualify to go to a district approved preschool at no cost with an Individual Education Plan."

Our expert behind Being Savvy Cincinnati asked her own team of experts: preschool teachers. She (and they) would get essential materials and resources into the hands of those who can employ them to best advantage in early learning. She would bring technology into the classroom -- a classroom that she would enhance with easy but specifically high-impact design features and pack full of inspiring real materials and manipulatives.  And she would bring the community's own artists and experts in.

Being Savvy Baltimore kept the quest for a better pre-K in perspective this way: "Make learning fun and age-appropriate--remember that your prospective students will be three-, four- and five-year-olds--and avoid the temptation to tailor your programs to the demands of high-stakes testing.  Keep these early school experiences simple but wondrous, heavy on socialization and play, and give the children room to make mistakes in the classroom, without fear of excessive evaluations.  Supply every classroom with huge numbers of books, and promote literacy through storytelling and reading.  And please, keep the class sizes small, so that every child gets plenty of one-on-one time with his teacher, and so that no child gets lost in the crowd."

And where you would start if you were in charge?

************

Preschool Is the New Kindergarten

by Stacey Boyd, Founder and CEO of The Savvy Source

Finally, we have a President who understands that Zero to Five are critical years for a child's future capacity to learn.

President Obama's education agenda recognizes the fact that in America preschool is the new kindergarten. Today, parents who can afford it are starting their children's formal education in preschool. But for parents without the resources to pay for a preschool education, on their child's first day of kindergarten a built-in achievement gap is waiting to embrace their child. And in many cases, it never lets go. Education is the ''balance wheel of the social machinery,'' said Horace Mann, the first great advocate of public schooling. Indeed, eradicating the achievement gap is the most important civil rights issue we face today. And preschool is where that fault line - the one between the "haves" and "have-nots" -- begins.

Take the Perry Preschool Project. In 1960, of 123 poor minority children 58 were randomly assigned to a rigorous preschool program. The rest, identical in every other regard, didn't attend preschool. Over the next 40 years, both groups were rigorously tracked. By almost any measure that matters - income, education, crime, family stability - the children who attended preschool today thrive in comparison to their peers who did not. They are significantly more literate. Nearly twice as many have college degrees. More have jobs. More own their own homes, cars and savings accounts. And those that attended preschools earn close to 25% more those who did not.   

Yet given the cost of tuition for preschool, attendance in US preschools today falls quite starkly along socio-economic lines. Thirty percent of our nation's four-year-olds are not enrolled in preschools, and most of these children are those stuck in poverty and challenging economic circumstances.  As these studies and the experience of countries such as France with universal preschool in place have shown, the "achievement gap" between the "haves" and the "have-nots" can be substantially bridged through good quality preschool.  
 
The momentum for universal preschools is starting to build. The free market and a few reform-minded states have already responded. While the United States was slow to embrace kindergarten in the last century, the movement toward preschool has been more rapid. Over the past 20 years, the number of states offering pre-K programs has doubled. Today, 40% of three-year-olds and 70% of four-year-olds are now attending preschool. Enrollment for four-year-olds at state-funded preschools has grown 20% in the past four years alone.

Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and a few other states have taken pioneering steps to make preschool opportunities available to all toddlers, regardless of their family income. While promising, many states have very small programs and eleven states don't have any preschool initiatives at all. A universal preschool initiative at the Federal level could have the greatest galvanizing affect on those lackluster states.

President Obama's proposed Early Learning Challenge Grants would encourage states to move quickly toward voluntary universal preschool. That is a step in the right direction if rather than simply creating thousands of new government schools, universal preschool can be structured so that states provide funding to families and/or schools. Today there are already tens of thousands of good, mostly private preschools across the country. 75% of our three-year-olds and 60% of our four-year-olds are served by private schools. The variety of programs and approaches is critical, since there is not a single, one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every toddler or every family. 

Traditional Republican opposition to government programs does not hold up on universal preschool. According to over 700 preschooler parents surveyed on the savvysource.com, 83% support the idea of universal preschool. Two-thirds of the respondents in the savvysource.com survey who identified themselves as Republicans are, in fact, in favor of universal preschool. Those on both sides of the aisle intuitively understand what research has shown: preschool makes the job of K-12 schools easier. How well a child reads at the end of first grade predicts with remarkable accuracy how well that child reads in later grades and whether they will graduate. 

With preschool, the persistent achievement gap will be eliminated before it begins to root. There will still be important work to do to build on the educational start preschoolers will have made, but public school systems will find it easier, less costly, and success will be much less determined by a child's family background. 

It's time to make universal preschool a reality.
 

From the Parents

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