(Praise, Caution for Alabama’s Pre-kindergarten expansion)
An editorial in the Montgomer Advertiser on Sunday hit the right note of praise and skepticism regarding Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s plan to expand a pre-kindergarten program that is considered one of the best in quality, but that simply isn’t reaching enough children.
Riley’s expansion will bring the number of children served up to 3,384, but as the editorial points out, that’s far less than the state needs. The editorial told the public of the importance of quality, including low student-to-teacher ratios, highly qualified teachers and a program that evaluates the academic, social and basic health needs of children.
At a time when so many states are expanding their programs, it’s important for the local press to stay on top of all new developments, and not simply praise or criticize politicians for their efforts to expand pre-kindergarten.
Journalists must understand both the fiscal challenges their state faces along with what makes an effective pre-kindergarten program, how many children it will reach and what the obstacles to success and expansion are. There are legislative reports and several sites that help define what a quality pre-kindergarten looks like that are worth consulting for broader perspective.
This editorial showed homework was done.
The annual “State of Preschool” yearbook from the National Institute of Early Education Research is out today and, as usual, there’s good as well as disappointing news for those who favor universal access to high quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
First the good….
Enrollment was up by 80,000 nationally in the 2006-2007 school year and, reversing a four-year-trend, inflation-adjusted per pupil spending was up too: by $32. The gain is small but it’s better than the decline in per-pupil spending that occurred in each of the past four years as enrollments grew quickly. Despite the slight uptick, per pupil spending still remains below what it was in 2002, according to NIEER’s Steve Barnett.
Biggest percentage gain in enrollment—52 percent—was tallied in Tennessee, where Gov. Phil Bredesen is fighting Republican opposition to continue to expand the program. More here. Even as enrollment grows in Tennessee, the state is maintaining high standards. Tennessee’s program meets nine out of 10 NIEER quality benchmarks. Only two states—North Carolina and Alabama—meet all 10 benchmarks. In Alabama, Republican Gov. Bob Riley is battling his own party as he tries to expand enrollment in the relatively tiny program.
Now the bad….
Kansas met only three of the 10 quality standards. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is trying to expand and improve that program. (Again, fighting Republican resistance.) Even more worrisome to Barnett is that the state programs of California, Texas and Florida, which collectively serve nearly 40% of the American four-year-olds in state-funded preschools, met only four of the 10 quality standards.“Those states could really result in such a dismal picture for so many of America’s kids,” he said.
The Associated Press coverage of Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s budget announcement highlighted two of his ideas related to early education–a tripling of the state’s investment in pre-kindergarten and expanded support for the Alabama Reading Initiative. (You will recall that the reading initiative in Alabama, as in many states, has gotten support from the federal Reading First program, which the Democrats in Congress cut by more than two-thirds.) But Riley is no big government, budget busting Republican. He also wants to cut income taxes to spur the state’s economy.
Strange things happening in politics these days: Rush Limbaugh hammering away hatefully at the soon to be crowned Republican presidential candidate John McCain; Ann Coulter, who has made a career out of childishly calling anyone not a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society stupid, saying she’ll vote for Hillary Clinton rather than support McCain. And now, circumlocuting radio host Garrison Keillor, who over the past eight years has been one of the harshest critics of President Bush, is condemning Democrats (via Andy R. at Eduwonk) for failing to back one of the president’s signature education programs.
I’ve always said that reporters often misunderstand the differences between Republicans and Democrats on education issues. On many issues, the usual alignments don’t hold. Take the Reading First program, for example. Eight years ago Bush set aside $1 billion to help the lowest-achieving districts in each state use well-researched approaches to reading instruction. The program generated lots of controversy. Not because of the methods it supported but rather because advisors to the program seemed to benefit from it financially. Democrats in Congress saw it as a chance to hit Bush, even though independent evaluations said the program was achieving good results. So, they cut the budget by 70%, hurting not Bush but hundreds of thousands of children who were reading better because of it.
On Monday, Bush introduced his budget, which proposes to restore full funding for the program. It will be interesting to see this play out. Will Democrats really insist on cutting an effective reading program rather than address the real issues? Meanwhile, reporters will find a good story if they look into the Reading First program in their own state. What do the parents of children served by it, most of whom will be low-income and more likely to be Democrats, say? What about their teachers? (Also likely to be Democrats.) Here’s one from the Birmingham (AL) News that identifies the state angle, although the reporter doesn’t go out into the schools. Sometimes the usual political assumptions just don’t hold.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley picked up a couple of important endorsements for his plan to triple state spending on pre-kindergarten. Riley, a Republican, is meeting resistance from his own party in the state and Republicans are dragging their heels in South Carolina and Tennessee as well. The Head Start association and the organization of private providers in Alabama are both on board with Riley now. Why is this signficant? The reason is that Head Start is often wary of pre-k proposals, because they tend to be better funded. And the private providers usually balk because they fear losing their paying clients to a free service. For example, Gov. Phil Bredeson in Tennessee told the Hechinger Institute last spring that one of the biggest hurdles he faced in expanding pre-k there was the private providers group.
The tension between these groups can be found in just about all the states that are expanding their pre-k spending so it’s worthwhile for journalists to pay attention to the compromises that result. In some states, such as Massachusetts, these groups have found common ground. That’s interesting too.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley last week told the Huntsville Times that he’d ask the state legislature to expand state-funded preschool. The state’s department of education estimated the cost at $120 million. Although Alabama is a right to work state with no collective bargaining law, the Alabama Education Association represents the interests of teachers in the capital. The AEA rep says Riley has to talk with the AEA about how he plans to fund the proposal. As is often the case, the teachers’ union is dubious of proposals that might take money off the table. In a case of curious bed fellows, the AEA raises the same concerns as “A ‘Bama Blog,” which asks whether the state should be paying for “free baby sitting for four-year-olds.” “A ‘Bama Blog” presents news from the “right side” of Alabama. I guess advocates of investments in high quality early childhood education still need to get across the message that pre-k is not babysitting.
Two reports within days about the South that, in a way, show two sides of the same coin. A report from the Southern Regional Education Board notes that the 15-state region leads the nation in offering publicly funded preschool and then quantifies that claim. Mississippi’s Jackson Sun editorialized about the report. The Southern Education Fund this week issued a report saying that a majority of students in the region are poor. Seems like one is related to the other.
“> Anyone who pays attention to the unfolding debate over the propriety and educational effects of public investments in preschool and child development has encountered fears of “government” brainwashing. Though not all such fears emanate from the dark imaginings of the far right, that crowd is certainly far more vocal. (Never forget that the seeds of dreaded liberalism tomorrow find fertile ground in the preschool sand tables of today!).Judge Roy Moore, (left, at a younger age), the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who was ousted after refusing to remove stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments from his court room, demonstrated this once again in this Internet column.
The column is a mish-mash of references to studies and research that he misapplies and misinterprets for his purposes. In addition to the usual rhetoric, however, the good judge added a new leap of logic that I’ve never seen anywhere. The “founding fathers,” reared in 18th century colonial America, did not go to public schools and they did pretty well. Americans back then were the “most literate and well-informed in history,” he contends, and “poetry, religion, and history flourished…without support from the state.” I know that many critics of public education claim, without much foundation, that student achievement has been sliding the past three or four decades. But I had no idea that the zenith of U.S. education was in the 1750s! Sure, recreating slavery, ridding ourselves of 300 years of technology and medicine, and reclaiming our true heritage as colonies would be problematic, but is there any other way to be competitive in this global economy? Let’s turn back the clock three centuries before it’s too late!
New Mexico Lieutenant Gov. Diane Denish, one of the strongest forces behind the start-up of the pre-k program in her state in 2005, now wants the number of children served to be doubled.. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagovich wants to increase the state’s spending on preschool by $70 million, opening up 12,000 slots. Some legislators in Missouri will be proposing expansion of state-funded preschool to all disadvantaged children. Finally, a consortium of colleges, the city of Tuscaloosa, the Mayor’s office, and the Tuscaloosa school system are working on a citywide pre-k program. Editorial in the Tuscaloosa News says that, “In the long term, Tuscaloosa will be a better community thanks to this program.”
According to the National Institute of Early Education Research, Alabama in 2005 ranked 37th in the percentage of its 4 year olds served. The state also cut its per-pupil spending on pre-k every year from 2000 tto 2005 and the elimination of federal child care funds available to poor working women were cut. Whenever journalists report on a new program or purported expansion of state spending on pre-k, it’s important to say what the state is already doing. A doubling of 2% of the 4 year olds served may look better than it is, especially if the funds aren’t doubled as well.