Online preschool is a thing — and it’s getting to be a bigger one.

As the independent education news site Hechinger Report noted in October:

Online preschool programs have been growing in recent years, and thousands of parents have signed their children up. The programs offer everything from educational games to a full preschool curriculum complete with boxes of activities that are shipped to a student’s home and a teacher’s guide for an adult. Most online programs are offered by for-profit companies, although perhaps the fastest-growing is UPSTART, which was developed by the nonprofit Waterford Institute and is advertised as a kindergarten-readiness program. That program has been used by children in Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, rural Ohio and Philadelphia, and is used by 30 percent of Utah’s 4-year-olds. In 2013, the Waterford Institute received an $11.5 million federal grant to expand the program to rural children in Utah.
In Mississippi, most children who participated in a pilot UPSTART program during the 2015-16 school year used it to supplement an in-person preschool program. Nationwide, many parents use the program as the sole preschool program for their children. This year, UPSTART, partnering on the pilot with federally-funded Head Start centers in Mississippi, will provide the program to 1,000 preschoolers. Children will use the program at home in the evenings and attend Head Start during the day.

There are so many questions about whether this is good for young kids that more than 100 early childhood experts and organizations signed a statement last fall calling for an end to public funding of online preschools.

The statement, co-authored by Defending the Early Years and the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, said these preschools deny children the hands-on experience that research says in important for young children. It said in part:

Virtual preschool may save states money, but it’s at the expense of children and families. Early learning is not a product. It is a process of social and relational interactions that are fundamental to children’s later development. Asserting that this process can take place online, without human contact, falsely implies that the needs of children and families can be met with inexpensive, screenbased alternatives.

That isn’t stopping legislators in some places from trying to jump on the bandwagon.

This post talks about legislation in North Carolina to do just that. It was written by Justin Parmenter, who teaches seventh-grade language arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. He is a fellow with Hope Street Group’s North Carolina Teacher Voice Network, and was a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher of the year in 2016. You can find him on Twitter here.

This appeared on his blog, and he gave me permission to publish it.

By Justin Parmenter

It’s the latest shockingly bad idea out of North Carolina.

This week state legislators filed a bill which would create a three-year year pilot program to deliver pre-kindergarten education at home via computer to what it terms “at risk” children.

The program, called UpStart, would cost a mere $500,000 per year. It would be available to families living below the federal poverty line and children of active duty military personnel and would provide both Internet access at home to families that can’t afford it and technical support to help them operate the software.

According to HB 485, the goals of the pilot program are as follows:

(i) evaluate the effectiveness of giving preschool-age children access, at home, to interactive individualized instruction delivered by computers and the Internet to prepare them academically for success in school; and (ii) test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the State.

I can’t believe I am actually writing these words, but the idea of having 4-year-olds going to preschool by looking at a computer in their home is horrendous.

Many of the advantages of a quality preschool education require children to actually be in the presence of other people. Those advantages include, among many other things, learning how to communicate effectively with peers, how to work together to solve problems, how to share and wait for your turn, how to be independent, and how to be respectful toward peers and adults. Those lessons form a critical foundation which helps prepare children for the transition to kindergarten.

Another issue with this bill, as North Carolina Justice Center policy analyst Kris Nordstrom points out, is that it fails to appropriate any funds for an evaluation to determine whether the virtual preschool is working. If we really want to “evaluate the effectiveness” of preparing students for success in school by putting them in front of a screen at their house, we need to provide funds to do so.

HB 485 is yet another attempt to mask a serious legislative shortcoming by tossing a few dollars and a terrible idea at it. If we are serious about wanting to prepare children for success in school, then we need to put up the money for universal pre-kindergarten.