Preschool for All?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

THE DISTRICT ranks second in the nation in the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds attending preschool programs that receive government support, but the programs vary widely in quality. That should be the D.C. Council's top concern as it considers a proposal to extend pre-kindergarten.

A wave of popular support surrounds a measure that would enroll an additional 2,000 children in 125 new classes over the next six years. The proposal is largely the work of Pre-K for All DC, which should be commended for focusing attention on this important topic. It's clear, though, from testimony presented at a recent public hearing that the bill needs more work. Among its more troubling provisions is the rigid requirement that half of all new classrooms be in community-based centers. Such a cap could limit public and charter school offerings, in turn limiting parental options. Equally worrisome are proposals to legislate class size and vest the University of the District of Columbia with sole responsibility for training and developing teachers.

No doubt Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who is leading the reform effort, realizes the bill is a starting point. Some 10,000 children are in pre-K in public and charter schools or in programs run by community-based organizations. Some of these facilities are good, but many are dreadful, as evidenced by the unreadiness of many kindergartners in the city's public schools. Improving the existing programs will be a daunting task requiring the kind of vigilance and oversight that have not been hallmarks of D.C. government. It also will take more money, but so far there has been no realistic assessment of those costs.

As the council seeks to resolve these issues, it's important that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his administration be more fully involved in the discussion. After all, it's the state superintendent of education who will have authority over the programs and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee who will have responsibility for the program's 5-year-old graduates.

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