Media Highlights

If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing?

by National Journal   •  

Fawn Johnson, Reporter

Preschool enrollment has stalled over the last four years while other education indicators, like high school graduation rates, have improved.

October 20, 2014 Preschool is about as universal as an issue can get among politicians and voters these days. Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is anti-Obama, anti-Common Core, and has accused teachers’ unions of being in the “Stone Age,” gave his education secretary the go-ahead to seek $15 million in federal funding for early education. This happened only after Jindal received assurances from the administration that state grant seekers do not have to comply with the controversial Common Core State Standards for K-12 schools in order to be eligible for the preschool money. Preschool, it would seem, is above such squabbles.

City and state officials vying for voters’ sympathy don’t have to fight about preschool. The evidence is overwhelming that preparing children for kindergarten under any standard is among the most effective ways to produce meaningful, long-term gains in their growth. The public supports government spending on preschool. A recent Gallup poll found that 70 percent of respondents, including more than half of the surveyed Republicans (53 percent), support increasing federal funding for preschool so that everyone has access to it.

Given the widespread agreement about the value of early education, it’s troubling that preschool enrollment isn’t increasing while other indicators of recovery are slowly creeping up.An economic opportunity report released Monday found that the nation has improved on a range of indicators—everything from high-speed Internet access to high school graduation rates to violent crime rates. Everything, that is, except preschool, where enrollment has dropped slightly since 2011.

A little less than half of the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool, with percentages dropping from 48.2 percent in 2011 to 47.6 percent this year, according to Opportunity Nation’s latest “Opportunity Index.” But let’s not forget that those figures are far higher than in the 1970s, when only about one-fourth of the country’s 4-year-olds and 10 percent of its 3-year-olds were in some type of preschool.

“The good news, historically over the last few decades, is that it’s now much more common. That good news has been tempered with where we are now. Essentially the numbers have kind of stalled out,” said Russell Krumnow, Opportunity Nation’s managing director.

Because preschool costs money, and because the return-on-investment of preschool may not be obvious immediately—you have to wait at least a decade to save the money on the toddler who won’t be in jail as a teen—Krumnow says some cities and states may still view preschool as “nice to have” rather than “need to have.”

But just as graduation rates for high schools are increasing because school districts and parents realize dropouts are no longer acceptable, the public’s views on whether preschool is a necessity or a luxury may be changing.

Fresh off of recent polling in North Carolina and Georgia showing that nearly three-fourths of voters want the government to put more money toward early education, the nonprofit group First Five Years Fund released more research Monday showing overwhelming support for preschool in the electoral battleground states of Florida, Ohio, and Colorado. In all three states, voters ranked giving children a strong start in life second on their priority list behind the perennially important jobs and economic growth. In Ohio and Colorado, three-quarters of voters said the two were related—that investments in early education would contribute to their state’s economies.

The results are not surprising, nor should they be. Parents and educators alike know in their guts that the earlier you get a child—particularly someone in a disadvantaged area—into a supportive education environment, the better off the entire community will be. Yet preschool is still an afterthought when it comes to ponying up the money for it. Some preschool teachers, for all their training, are paid about on par with fast-food workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median salary for preschool teachers is $27,000, but that statistic includes those who work for elementary or secondary schools and for religious or professional organizations. The median salary for workers in “child day care services” is $24,000. No matter which figure you use, the median salary for kindergarten and elementary teachers is about double that, at $53,000.

The First Five Years Fund will host a briefing on Capitol Hill Wednesday to discuss the importance of early learning and ways to expand it. The lawmakers who could act on the issue are out of town, but staffers will be there to pass the message along to their bosses once the election furor is over. This isn’t one they should be afraid of.

For our insiders: What catalyst is needed to dramatically grow preschool enrollment? Why has it stalled? What can state and city governments do to increase enrollment? Does it matter what kind of preschool kids enroll in? Should preschool enrollment be required, as K-12 is? Should lower-income households get priority when preschool slots are limited?

Read more at National Journal

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