California Initiative Renews Preschool Debate
Although Pre-K Programs Are Expanding Nationwide, Experts Disagree on Whether They Should Be Universal

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

From coast to coast, states are pushing to get more 4-year-olds into classrooms like Cheryl Smith's thriving pre-kindergarten group at Cool Spring Elementary School in Adelphi.

Many youngsters arrive in Room 10 speaking English as a second language and Spanish as their first. Nearly all come from homes where paying for preschool is impossible. But by springtime, after passing or nearing their fifth birthday, children in this state-funded program have formed valuable relationships with peers and Smith, gained a familiarity with letters and numbers, and developed a thirst for learning that should propel them in school for years to come.

"It's almost time for kindergarten. We are ready now!" Smith's children sang one morning last week, swaying from side to side. "We have learned so much this year, it's time to take a bow!"

A few states have made public pre-kindergarten open to all; others are debating the expansion. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) proposed universal access to pre-kindergarten last year during his campaign. But debate over a universal pre-kindergarten proposal on the ballot June 6 in California shows that widespread disagreement continues over whether the education of all 4-year-olds should be a public obligation.

Proposition 82, pushed by actor-director Rob Reiner, would require California to offer three hours of preschool a day to all 4-year-olds, with funding obtained from a tax increase of 1.7 percent on individual income of more than $400,000 and on joint-filer income greater than $800,000.

Advocates say every dollar spent on public preschool will save $2.62 by lowering remedial education costs, reducing crime rates, and providing other long-range social and economic benefits.

Opponents reject the savings estimate as exaggerated and question whether the proposal can achieve lofty goals that may be contradictory -- closing achievement gaps and raising performance of all students. Some critics say helping students who have advantages will only reinforce those advantages, leaving the disadvantaged perpetually behind.

Polls show that the initiative's prospects are uncertain. Many newspapers have lined up against it.

"Universal preschool, like world peace or thoughtful television, is a worthy goal," the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial opposing the initiative. The newspaper added: "Studies make clear that preschool can be a boon to disadvantaged kids. But they don't tell us whether preschool helps more than, say, full-day kindergarten, or smaller class sizes, or family literacy classes."

Many education analysts are tracking the California debate over whether pre-kindergarten should be universal or targeted to disadvantaged kids.

"From Ted Kennedy to George Bush, we have policymakers pushing to close achievement gaps," said Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He was referring to the Democratic senator from Massachusetts and the president, who teamed up on the No Child Left Behind law. "The way you close gaps is to target public assistance on those children and families at the low end of the income spectrum."

But W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said many children who fail at school or drop out come from the middle class -- strong reason, he said, for the nation to move toward universal pre-kindergarten.

Research shows that "effects of preschool education on middle-income children are somewhat smaller than on the poor, but are still substantive," Barnett wrote in an e-mail. "Studies show that poor children benefit from attending preschool education with middle-income children."

Oklahoma and Georgia have well-established universal pre-kindergarten programs. They were joined recently by Florida. Barnett's institute found that 38 states offered pre-kindergarten in 2004-05, not including federally funded early education programs such as Head Start.

In the District, about 70 percent of 4-year-olds are served by preschool programs, D.C. schools spokeswoman Roxanne Evans said.

Barnett's institute estimates that in Virginia, 24 percent of 4-year-olds receive publicly funded preschool through the state and federal governments. The state Department of Social Services estimate is 20 percent. Regardless, Kaine wants to increase access greatly through an initiative he calls Start Strong.

Maryland's public preschool system serves about 43 percent of the state's 4-year-olds, according to the institute. Maryland school systems have reported a steady rise in pre-kindergarten enrollment in recent years, fueled in part by funding from the 2002 Bridge to Excellence Act.

In September 2003, Montgomery County had about 2,700 students in pre-kindergarten. It now has more than 3,000. Prince George's County pre-kindergarten enrollment jumped from about 3,600 to 4,900 during that time, an increase of more than 35 percent.

Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent for early childhood development, said Maryland's program remains targeted to low-income students. But he said a new state law has created a task force to study broader access.

Smith, who has a master's degree in early childhood education, teaches one of five pre-kindergarten classes at Cool Spring. She says education begins in infancy. "You're preparing the child from the day they are born to the day they enter school," she said. But Smith has the children for only 180 days before they enter kindergarten.

As one of those days began last week, the youngsters called out to Smith the days of the week, counted to 24 to mark the date on the calendar, spelled the month "M-a-y" and counted to 169 to mark how many days they had been in school. They studied the letter "N," cutting out examples from magazines and gluing them to sheets of paper. Andrea Reyes and Natalie Avalos, both 5, picked out the letter "N" in their names. "We're finding words all over and N's all over," Smith told them.

Some children from last year's Cool Spring pre-kindergarten program attended nearby Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School this academic year. Langley Park-McCormick Principal Sandi Jimenez said she had three kindergarten classes -- one was made up predominantly of students who had attended pre-kindergarten classes; the other two were not. She said the former class is ahead of the other two in academic and social development.

"The differences are absolutely marked," Jimenez said.

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