Obama's pre-school proposal: Can it work?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26 2013 9:09 a.m. MST

Targeting: "The administration’s focus on providing financial support for expansion of pre-K access for 4-year-olds from lower-income families is consistent with the evidence on both where the need exists for enhancing children’s school readiness and on how to maximize bang for the buck," according to the Brookings Institution posting.

Curriculum: Evidence shows that children from low-income families are far behind advantaged peers at school entry, and that curriculum used in classrooms for low-income 4-year-olds has big impact on developing vocabulary, letter recognition and phonemic awareness, Whitehurst wrote. "Thus, the administration’s commitment to linking federal funding to the requirement that preschool programs have a 'rigorous curriculum' is important and evidence-based," he continued.

An end to Head Start as we know it: Obama's plan describes a new federal-state partnership for 4-year-olds and speaks of Head Start services for children from birth to age 3, again in partnership with states and communities, which it currently is not. "The administration knows that Head Start isn’t getting the job done and is proposing a bold move in a new direction," Whitehurst wrote.

There are negatives in the Obama proposals, too, according to the Brookings Institution:

Teacher credentials and pay: The plan calls for state to staff their pre-K programs with well-trained teachers, paid comparably to K-12 staff, a problematic requirement in Whitehurst's view. "Requiring states to credential and pay pre-K teachers as they credential and pay K-12 teachers assures only two things: high costs and supportive teacher unions," he wrote.

Local school district governance: "In far too many cases these would be the same school districts that are responsible for the terrible public schools that will fail to educate the very children the president’s preschool proposal is intended to benefit," the posting said.

Choice: "The administration’s plan is silent on whether and how parents will be able to exercise choice in where they send their child to pre-K," Whitehurst wrote. "Choice is important for many reasons, including its importance to parents, who are used to exercising it for preschool," he said. "It also impacts program performance and innovation because it allows for variety in programs and competition among providers."

Funding: The federal government funds a variety of programs aimed at improving early education, including Head Start, the Child Care and Development Fund, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Title I, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, Brookings Institution points out. Approximately $15 billion to $20 billion is spent annually on early education through these programs.

"At the very least, the administration should push for common data, assessment and program evaluation approaches, and a unified system for providing information to parents on center quality across these funding streams," Whitehurst wrote. "A bolder direction would be to combine these funds into a single state block grant to support the early education of vulnerable young children."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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