The Push for Public Preschool: More Districts Are Seeing the Advantages of School Readiness and Preparing Youngsters for Their K12 Careers

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FROM SELECTING APPROPRIATE CURRICULA and teachers to providing classrooms with bathrooms easily accessible to 4-year-olds, public preschool programs present challenges to districts that run the programs, which are designed to prepare children to get off to a good start when they enter kindergarten.

While a wide range of private preschool programs exist, public programs usually are free for parents who enroll their children in them, and the growing number of public programs reflects recognition by educators and parents that they improve the readiness of the children for kindergarten and the grades that follow.

"The school readiness component is one of the most important aspects of preK programs," says Davida McDonald, director of state policy at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). In a speech to NAEYC's annual conference last November, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, "Tragically, a substantial achievement gap exists in America before children ever arrive for their first day of kindergarten." But early learning that can help close the gap is "on the cusp" of transformational reform, he said, citing the "dramatic expansion" of state-funded preschool programs in the last decade.

According to the latest data available from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, 27,658 public schools had prekindergarten in the 2007-2008 school year, up from about 19,000 in 2000-2001.

Enrollment in state-funded preK programs rose to 1.2 million children in 2008-2009, an increase of about 81,000 over the previous year, according to The State of Preschool 2009, the annual survey of state-funded preschool programs by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. Thirty percent of children in the United States attend a state-funded preschool program at age 4, and total funding for state preK rose to more than $5 billion in 2008-2009, an increase of $446 million over the previous year, NIEER researchers found.

But NIEER Executive Director W. Steven Barnett cautions that because of the economy and declining state revenues, the immediate future of state-funded preschool is "more perilous than past trends might suggest." In some states, enrollment has been cut to the lowest levels in many years, and other states have cut preschool funding and quality, he says, adding that 11 governors already have proposed preschool cuts for next year. "More cuts may be coming as state legislators cope with budget shortfalls," he declares.

And only 16 states could be verified as providing enough funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards, The State of Preschool report notes.

As of early May, New Mexico had already cut preK spending for 2011 and cuts were being considered in 11 states including Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin and New York. In Arizona, the program may be eliminated.

Preparing to Start

The Boston (Mass.) Public Schools were "gloriously unprepared" when Mayor Thomas Menino decided in 2005 that he wanted to offer universal preschool to all 4-year-olds in the city, says Jason Sachs, the district's director of early childhood education. "There was no curriculum designed for 4-year-olds in the district, so we had to figure that out," he says. And they had to prepare teachers and principals, identify classrooms for preK, and add a bathroom to each room.

"So we started cranking up," he says. Initially with 750 children in 38 classrooms, the program now serves about 2,100 children in 110 classrooms in 66 elementary schools, about three-quarters of all BPS elementary schools.

For its curriculum, BPS selected Pearson's Opening the World of Learning (OWL), which is designed to build firm foundations in language and literacy skills and uses classic children's books, songs and poems to keep learning engaging. …