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The Case For Universal Preschool
By Kathreen Francis

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), almost 66% of children nationally attend preschool each year. Of those children, most come from wealthier families who can afford to pay tuition. This indicates an attendance gap. Millions of families face a tiered system that assists some children at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, leaving a huge hole for the working poor and lower middle classes, while offering a variety of options for those who can afford to pay. The question here is:  Do all children, regardless of income, have a right to a free (or substantially subsidized) preschool program?

The Case For Universal Preschool
Universal preschool is a catchall term that generally refers to a system that offers a voluntary, but free (or very affordable) preschool for every family who wants it. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, this is accomplished through a variety of methods, but generally falls into one of four categories:

A) Truly free and completely regulated.  These programs are run very much like kindergarten - all children may attend, while teachers and curriculum are tightly controlled. This is the method of choice for many because it ensures that all children have the best available options. Advocates also appreciate the socio-economic diversity and the removal of the social stigma of programs like Head Start.

B) Subsidized and regulated.  This is similar to the previous example, but subsidized, meaning some families will be expected to pay a portion of the cost.  The quality control is similar, guaranteeing that even those who can afford to pay very little will receive the same preschool experience as those who can pay more.

C) Free through tuition offset by tax credits or vouchers - unregulated.  This method allows families to choose from any available preschool by offering a ‘voucher’ or tax credit which can be applied to tuition, making it free (or very affordable) and flexible.  This is popular especially among  people who want faith-based, Montessori, or other unique programming.

D) Free through tuition offset, but tightly regulated.  This was the idea behind California’s failed Proposition 82 that would have offered vouchers to any preschool, but required that the receiving school follow the mandates the state established.  This was supposed to be a compromise that allowed families to choose among independent, but still supervised programs.

Advocates of universal access believe that all children should have access to equal and first-rate preschools.  They are dismayed by the failure of programs like Head Start and Kindergarten Readiness to reach large segments of the population, including the impoverished demographic they are targeting. Income scales are set too low, families move in and out of the 'target range,' so attendance is erratic. Furthermore, teachers may be less qualified than those in the universal state-funded system. Universal preschool supporters are most disappointed by the target points themselves - arbitrary income levels that cut working poor and middle class people out of the system altogether. Universal programs reach all children and provide for efficient use of best practices, curriculum and teacher development programs. They offer consistent measures of child readiness and can connect children to outside resources if necessary (speech therapy, etc). For millions of families, universal preschools offer access to the kinds of quality programs they cannot otherwise afford.

The Trouble with Universal Preschool
Universal preschool is not ‘universally’ popular - even among educators.  Advocates of targeted programs like Head Start are concerned about the schools designed to help our neediest children. Arguably, these children receive the most benefits from quality preschools and the community services they provide (dental referrals, etc.). They question the wisdom of subsidizing preschool for families who can afford it, drawing teachers and resources away from those who already have so little. Head Start’s statistics tell us that their population has critical needs - almost half of their families make less than $12,000 per year, and about one out of every 6 children in Head Start has one or more disabilities. These disabilities include speech or language-related ones, in addition to early literacy skills far below the national norm. Currently funding serves only 60% of the eligible population. The Child Welfare League of America has been tracking Head Start funding and attendance, and has shown that during the last five years, enrollment and funding has either stalled or declined.  There is concern that the special services provided by these targeted preschools will disappear altogether in a world of universal preschool.

Other opponents worry about the loss of flexibility and independence in the face of an expanding, potentially huge new government program. Many families believe that preschool will become mandatory in spite of reassurances to the contrary. Critics point to the potential consequence of participation in kindergarten becoming compulsory as an example of harsh governmental interference, resulting in fewer options and fewer rights for parents.

Some educational researchers are dismayed by the societal pressure being placed on kids to perform academically and use preschools (especially the very competitive, academically focused ones) as examples of pushing kids to be ‘the best’. Mandatory testing and onerous No Child Left Behind policies are creating an urgency that has forced school boards, state legislatures and the federal government to assess children even at the kindergarten level. Many believe that preschool should only emphasize play and social development, and any real pre-literacy focus should be reserved for those children who are truly behind.

Teachers, administrators and teaching colleges are also worried about any new policies regarding appropriate certification and level of education. Many exceptional teachers do not have degrees and would find it difficult or impossible to get them. In California, teaching colleges were unprepared to handle the influx of students they would be required to serve if Prop. 82 passed. No real plan exists to help pay for the education of new teachers. Furthermore, no infrastructure within the educational community exists to achieve this. Moreover, compensation for preschool teachers is already notoriously poor - there is no way to ensure that newly degreed teachers could be adequately paid for their improved credentials. 

Preschool administrators worry about the business impact of free schooling and unfair competition. Common sense and experience tell us that it is nearly impossible for most private preschools to compete when comparable options are offered for free. Most centers are operating on a tight budget - trying to pay teachers fairly while keeping tuition down, and fear that ‘free’ will lure too many children away. Home-based centers face similar challenges. This imbalance may cause another unfortunate side effect because the combined loss of home-based and center-based programs, most of which also serve younger children, could greatly reduce the availability of care for all ages.

A Brewing Controversy
A report conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that in 2005, 28 states considered expanding their programs, and five states already had a version of a universal system (details differ) with three more phasing one in. Only four states had no plans for state funded preschool programs. With these changes being implemented, it is important for those who support and oppose universal preschool to understand the interests of each side so that reasonable, mutually agreeable policy planning can take place.

Kathreen Francis is a Legislative Aide in the Michigan State Senate with a special policy interest in 0-5 learning and K-12 Educational/Funding issues. She is also the parent of four active children.