Congress has a plan for universal pre-K. Will states opt in?
WASHINGTON — Nearly a fifth of President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion sweeping social spending package is dedicated to providing low-cost care for children from birth to kindergarten — investments that would benefit single parents and low-income families.
But how the states implement their programs for pre-K for 3-and 4-year-olds—or whether they even decide to accept the cash, particularly in red states—would have a profound effect on the quality of education those small children receive.
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Also key is whether preschool teachers will be required to have four-year degrees, researchers say—something that’s often not the case in private day care or home-based care.
That is assuming the ambitious plan to boost spending on universal pre-K survives ongoing negotiations over the price tag for Biden’s “Build Back Better” package.
Two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have called for a drastic cutback in the size of the social spending package. Manchin said Thursday that he would not support a bill that was higher than $1.5 trillion—putting many priorities, such as education, on the chopping block.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, (D-Fla.), during a recent House Education and Labor Committee hearing argued against any reductions in the education provisions. “Even with the robust investments proposed here, we are still shortchanging vital programs,” Wilson said.
New partnership with states, localities
Under the full $3.5 trillion plan, Congress would allocate $450 billion for universal pre-K as well as child care entitlements.
The proposal would create a new partnership between federal, state and local governments to offer free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
For more than 50 years the federal government has been providing preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families through its Head Start program that serves more than a million children, but now Democrats would expand it to all children.
If a state chooses to opt into universal preschool, the federal government would pay for the program for the first three years, then scale back until the state is paying up to 40% after five years.
Funding for the program completely expires within seven years, but Democrats are hoping it will be popular and will continue to be renewed, a House Education and Labor Committee aide said.
But it would be up to states whether they will buy into the program at all. Local governments would be able to opt in even if the state refuses.
It would be a big change for many states.
Only two states, Vermont and Florida, along with the District of Columbia, now offer universal pre-K. Florida offers universal pre-K to all 4-year-olds and Vermont is the only state to offer the same for all 3-and 4-year-olds.
Several states have mostly universal programs, such as Georgia, Iowa and Wisconsin, where a patchwork of preschool programs is offered.
Six states have no state-funded pre-K: New Hampshire, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming. However, Montana is working to partially fund a pre-K program.
And some states are creative with funding their pre-K programs. Kansas, Connecticut and Arizona pay for their preschool programs through tobacco settlements. Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina use money from a state lottery program to fund pre-K.
Teachers with four-year degrees
But even as expanded preschool takes on a higher profile in Washington, some researchers are questioning the education requirements for teachers included in the plan.
Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is concerned that the legislation grandfathers in child care providers who do not have college degrees.
“This bill requires states to allow anybody who has taught in a child care center for three of the last five years to never get a degree,” he said. “You have to accept them whether they meet your standards or not.”
Barnett is also the senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, which produces academic research on the impacts of high-quality early education for all young children.
He points out that some states, like New York and New Jersey, require early childhood instructors for private and public preschool centers to have a four-year degree or master’s in child care development.
If the congressional plan grandfathers in a workforce that is not required to have a four-year degree, that could in turn affect the quality of education some children receive, he said. Often private or home-based day care providers have two-year degrees or high school diplomas.
States would be able to decide on the teaching skills needed in order to bypass a degree requirement. That provision was included to develop a mixed preschool program, which includes public, private or family care centers for early childhood programs that were already in place, a House Education and Labor committee aide said.
Barnett has found in his research that preschool teachers with four-year degrees are more effective in the classroom than teachers without that level of education.
Researchers from George Mason University and University of Virginia also studied how Black and Latino children in Miami fared in several types of publicly funded preschool programs based in public schools, center-based care or home-based child care. Public pre-K programs required teachers to have four-year degrees.
They found that “Black and Latino children in public school-based pre-K programs consistently demonstrated greater kindergarten readiness when compared with their classmates in center-based and family child care.”
Reductions in poverty found
As for the benefits of preschool, the federal government has studied early childhood development through pre-K programs and has concluded pre-K programs can reduce poverty and inequality.
In another long-term study, Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children in the United States has studied the benefits of the universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds in Tulsa, Okla., for 20 years.
Bill Gormley, a professor at Georgetown and co-director of the center, has found that the Tulsa program had positive effects up until middle school. Children in the program tend to perform better at reading and math and are less likely to be held back a grade than children who did not enroll in preschool.
“The cognitive gains were really quite substantial,” he said. “Our earliest findings showed that the early program was stunningly successful.”
He’s been focused on a class of about 4,000 children from low-income and middle-class backgrounds who started the pre-K program in 2006.
“The disadvantaged children benefited more, but the middle-class kids definitely benefited from it as well,” he said.
He’s currently working on research to see if those benefits last into high school. He’s hoping to understand if Tulsa’s early childhood education programs ends up producing higher high school graduation rates and higher college enrollment rates.
Will pre-K be a priority?
In Congress, lawmakers are continuing to debate the size of the social spending bill, but leaders insist they will keep early childhood education at the top of the list of priorities.
Progressive members have threatened to vote against a separate bill providing expanded road and bridge funding if programs like universal pre-K get axed.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.), stressed her commitment to keeping in provisions relating to children, such as universal pre-K, at a press conference Thursday.
“I just told members of my leadership that the reconciliation bill was a culmination of my service in Congress, because it was about the children,” she said. “It’s about health, their education, the economic security of their families, the security of their families, a clean, safe environment in which they could thrive.”