Bill Would Put More Children in Pre-Kindergarten

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray wants 2,000 more children to be enrolled in pre-kindergarten classes over the next six years and wants their teachers to be more educated as part of a $50 million plan that follows a national trend to get students into the classroom earlier.

Gray (D) will introduce legislation today that would give priority for pre-kindergarten classes to 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income households and those who are disabled. "They are hopelessly far behind," Gray said. "Many of them never catch up."

The remaining 12 council members have signed on as co-sponsors.

Across the country, more governors and state legislators are pushing the expansion of pre-K as the key to education reform, believing that spending money upfront will decrease the amount spent later on special education and juvenile delinquency, according to Pre-K Now, an advocacy group.

In Virginia, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has made universal pre-K a focus of his administration, although his initial plan to enroll 100,000 4-year-olds has been pared to target 17,000 more underprivileged 4-year-olds by 2012. Maryland has also expanded its pre-K program so that all school districts are required to provide education to 4-year-olds from households living at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold, according to Pre-K Now.

Last month, Congress approved a bill that will boost the federal Head Start program with more funding and more educational requirements for teachers. That program, which began in 1965, does not cover all children.

"Pre-K has gained such traction because it's the perfect storm of evidence, advocacy and leadership," said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now. "We're really excited to see this movement in D.C. that really mirrors what's happening in the leading states."

Doggett said Pre-K Now has contributed $300,000 to Pre-K for All DC, a group formed last year to push early childhood education in the District.

Pre-K for All DC helped Gray craft his bill, which first targets 3- and 4-year-olds from families with incomes at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or about $50,000 for a family of four. In addition, 10 percent of all slots would be reserved for children with disabilities.

About 12,000 children are enrolled in pre-K programs, with half attending classes in traditional public and charter schools, said Jesse Bailey, campaign manager for Pre-K for All. Gray's bill would cover the estimated 2,000 eligible children who are not being served, he said.

Under the bill, about 125 classes would be created, with half run by the public school system and half by nonprofit groups. Gray said he expects Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to incorporate the plan and its budget into her overhaul efforts.

Doggett said the bigger problem in the District is not access but quality. "On paper, the standards are high," she said. "In practice, what children are getting doesn't mirror that."

Gray's legislation would require teachers to have bachelor's degrees in early childhood education, child development or family studies by 2014 if they are working in programs funded through the legislation. The educational requirements are similar to those set last month by Congress, which demanded that half of all Head Start teachers have bachelor's degrees and the other half hold associate degrees by 2013.

To increase the number of District teachers, Gray's bill also requires creation of a scholarship program. Recipients would have to commit to working in the District for three years once they receive their degree. Gray said he was not sure how much money the city would have to generate to fund the scholarships.

He also said teachers of programs already receiving city funding would not have to return to school. "I don't want to hurt people who have so many years of experience in this," Gray said. "The improvement will occur through attrition. People who don't have those credentials now will be grandfathered."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company