Spring peepers and the war on Pre-K for All

February 27, 2015

In the past week I have seen many more attacks directed against Pre-K for All than I have in some time. This signals the start of the state budget season as surely as drumming woodpeckers and noisy peepers signal the arrival of spring. What I find surprising is how many preschool policy peepers promote misinformation based on research that is flawed or simply misused. story time 4

Good government requires good information, and that seems to be in short supply this budget season. Generally, the peepers protest that if everyone gets good preschool, achievement gaps will widen and public money will be wasted, because children from middle-income families do not benefit from preschool. I don’t know which is worse, the obvious logical contradiction or that the studies they cite to support these claims either include only children in poverty or find exactly the opposite–that children from middle-income families gain from high-quality pre-K though usually not as much as children in poverty. New York City in particular has suffered a sudden onslaught of misinformation that coincided with the Mayor’s budget presentation in Albany.

The Mayor’s new budget was greeted with accusations from a just-released report that the first year of the Pre-K for All expansion tilted the playing field in favor of children in wealthy neighborhoods. That claim is patently false. Nearly two-thirds of free, full-day Pre-K for All seats are in neighborhoods below the City’s median income. In just one year of Pre-K for All, New York City increased provision of pre-K seats in neighborhoods in the two lowest-income quintiles to 2.5 times the previous level. In other words, the Mayor’s initiative added more new places for children in low-income communities in one year than New York City had managed to add in the entire previous decade. The straight-up facts: Pre-K for all added 20,500 pre-K places in lower-income zip codes; 6,200 pre-K places in neighborhoods around the median; and another 6,800 in higher-income zip codes.

The same report put forward a survey as evidence that new Pre-K for All seats often just replaced existing places in preschools that did not receive Pre-K for All funds, through “wasteful competition.” Competition that increases choice and raises the bar for quality across early care and education in NYC is hardly wasteful. However, the survey provides no basis for any firm conclusions. Of the 264 providers who did not receive Pre-K for All funds contacted for the survey, less than 40 percent responded. The responses that were obtained appear to be “guesstimates,” rather than data from records, and counted programs as losing seats even when they had waiting lists from which to draw “replacements.” Extrapolation from these questionable figures to “lost seats” just doesn’t make sense.

More troubling than these manufactured problems with Pre-K for All is the proposed solution: to restrict publicly funded pre-K based on family income. This would paradoxically entrench disparities in early learning in the City. Whether or not one believes that every child deserves the option to attend a free, high-quality, full-day pre-K, who believes that separate means equal? Separate is not equal, it’s disparate.

Pre-K is a time for children to explore, create, learn, and socialize with other children and adults, as they build a foundation of skills and knowledge needed for school and life. Exposure to peers from different socioeconomic backgrounds is valuable to a child’s development, and to restrict pre-K access based on income undermines the goal of a fair and equitable education system that reflects the diversity of our cities, states, and nation.

Mayor de Blasio has led a historic expansion of pre-K in New York City, and has made it clear that he believes every 4-year-old, in every neighborhood, deserves to attend free, full-day, high-quality, pre-K. I agree. Others may have values that lead them to different conclusions, but everyone should be informed by accurate information. The orchestrated disinformation campaign to sow dissension, curtail funding, and damage the reputation of an effort that has not completed its first year, indicates that policy makers in New York and elsewhere will need to invest in good evaluations, not just to inform continuous improvement, but also policy making more generally. With a rigorous evaluation planned from the start, New York City results could inform policy decisions in other cities and states around the country. This does not mean a rush to judgment regarding impacts on children in year 1. As Don Campbell advised, summative evaluation of ultimate impacts should wait until a program is “proud.” We should evaluate progress along the way, however. New York City seems to have cleared the first hurdle with room to spare, the preschool peepers’ protests notwithstanding.

–Steve Barnett, Director


Young immigrants and dual language learners: Participation in pre-K and Kindergarten entry gaps

February 18, 2015

In a recent webinar, NIEER discussed what it means to be Hispanic and a DLL (a dual language learner) or Hispanic and come from a home with immigrant parents. We showed that Hispanic children, DLLs, and children with an immigrant background have lower rates of participation in center-based care (including Head Start) pre-K programs than White non-Hispanic children. We considered the impacts on enrollment of home language and of varied immigrant backgrounds, which make this group quite heterogeneous. We found that enrollment rates do show that while non-DLL Hispanics and Native Hispanics had enrollment rates above 60 percent, much like White children, about 45-50 percent of DLLs and Immigrant background Hispanics were enrolled in center-based care.

Pre-K participation of Hispanics in center-based care

That is, only one in two DLL Hispanics or Immigrant Hispanics attend a center-based program. This suggests that aspects of language and immigration status are likely defining why children participate.

We then wondered about similarities between these enrollment patterns and kindergarten entry gaps. Using Whites as the group of reference, it turns out that Hispanic DLLs and Hispanic immigrant children have very large performance gaps in reading, math, and language. These two groups pretty much drive the overall Hispanic gaps observed at kindergarten. What about Hispanic children who are both DLL and of immigrant background? Hispanic DLL children from an immigrant background show very large performance gaps, unlike Native-born English-speaking Hispanics, who fare quite well relative to Whites. It appears we are failing this group.

Kindergarten gaps for Hispanic students, math, reading, and language

Patterns are somewhat different when we look at socio-emotional developmental gaps. These do not resemble those for reading, math, and language. On the contrary, while most Hispanics differ little from Whites in terms of approaches to learning, self-control, or problems with externalizing and internalizing behaviors , Hispanic DLL children who are Native-born show large gaps across all of these domains except for internalizing behaviors.

Kindergarten gaps for Hispanic children, social-emotional skills

Putting this all together, clearly policy makers should focus on increasing access, outreach, and participation in high-quality early education for any and all Hispanic children, but especially for Hispanic DLL children and children whose parents are immigrants. Moeover, policy makers and practitioners both should recognize how diverse Hispanics are as a group, and how the needs of DLL Hispanic children differ depending on their family histories .

Addressing these issues in early care and education begins with obtaining a better understanding who our children are and who are we serving (and not serving), including:

  • screening language abilities
  • developing guidelines and standards that address the needs of these groups
  • promoting the proliferation of bilingual programs
  • and, planning ways to engage and effectively work with diverse groups of Hispanic children.

How well we do this in the first years of their lives will have important consequences for their developmental pathways and their opportunities, and this will be reflected in the our society 15-20 years from now.

–Milagros Nores, PhD, Associate Director of Research


Will FY2016 be the year for children? Or déjà vu?

February 4, 2015

In January’s State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted several initiatives meant to simplify child care for America families. The White House’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016, released on Monday, provides further insight into the costs and details of these programs as well as additional areas of focus within the early childhood world.

FY2016 budget table

Early childhood education is often referred to as a “patchwork” system in reference to the number of public and private stakeholders–with varying program requirements and goals–who are involved, and the federal budget is no exception. Several departments have larger programs that operate projects in early childhood education. The Department of Education oversees Special Education Preschool Grants and houses the current Preschool Development Grants program, as well as the President’s proposed Preschool for All program. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also collaborates on the Preschool Development Grants program. HHS oversees Head Start, child care, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV). The President has also proposed expanding the current tax benefits for families paying for child care–a complex change to tax policy which would not be covered by either department as it is not itself a program.

Much of what the White House is proposing in this budget has been seen before. The Preschool for All program is similar to the version proposed in the FY 2014 budget, and the Preschool Development Grants seek to distribute funds to more states than those already awarded grants in FY 2015. A review of budget documents from the Education and HHS departments does reveal some suggested changes:

  • Special Education Preschool Grants would include appropriations language that would allow LEAs to expand the age range of eligible children to include children ages 3 through 5, as well as requesting a waiver of some reporting requirements for LEAs that exercise this flexibility.
  • Head Start requested an additional $1.1 billion to expand service to full-day and school-year calendars. There is also $150 million for Early Head Start and EHS-Child Care partnerships as well as $284 to help existing programs offset rising costs.
  • Child Care: In the requested increase, there is a proposed $266 million to implement the reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant Act. There’s also a requested $100 million for Child Care Pilots for Working Families, which would test and evaluate models for working families, including those who work nontraditional hours. The administration has also introduced a 10-year, $82 billion plan for mandatory funding for the Child Care and Development Fund, to ensure that all low-income working families with children ages three or younger have access to quality, affordable child care.
  • An expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) up to $3,000 per child would triple the maximum credit for families with children under age five and makes the full CDCTC available to families with incomes of up to $120,000. While this credit is largely discussed as a way to help parents pay for the care of their young children, it can also be used for older children and dependents who are elderly or have disabilities.

The Obama administration has touted this budget as crucial to progress for the middle class. These proposals focused on the early years on life would fill major gaps in service for many of America’s children–children in low-income families who do not have quality care while their parents work; children whose families feel the “middle class squeeze” and could greatly benefit from the increased CDCTC; children with special needs for whom quality early intervention services can make a world of difference. However, two essential questions should be asked about each element of the proposal. First, is it designed in such a way that it will significantly improve the quality of children’s early educational experiences? Much of the potential benefit to children and society depends on the answer. Second, what is the potential for passage?  Without support across the aisle, as well as at the state level, these proposals will remain just proposals. Recent experience suggests that, at least for education, proposals designed to help every child will be better received than those that exclude the families expected to pay for them.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


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