A plan to provide lower-income children with free preschool could raise them to levels enjoyed by th

HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

A step ahead at school

A plan to provide lower-income children with free preschool could raise them to levels enjoyed by their higher-income peers

By Christine Donnelly

Recent national research suggests that Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s scaled-back, dual approach to early learning — focused on getting the neediest kids into a variety of public and private programs — fuels the best educational outcomes for disadvantaged children and offers taxpayers a stronger return on their investment.

Rebuffed last session in his nearly $30 million “preschool for all” initiative, the governor is pushing ahead this legislative session with a hybrid plan that seeks a total of about $8 million to subsidize enrollment in private early-learning centers, establish a total of 32 preschool classes at 30 public schools statewide and fund programs designed to improve low-income parents’ interactions with their children. All of the outreach would be targeted at lower-income children, and is pending budgetary approval from state lawmakers.

Although the combined programs would not serve all 5,100 4-year-olds who will be displaced by the termination of the state Department of Education’s junior kindergarten program this fall, much less all 17,200 children that age in the state, the focus on bringing needy kids into both private and public programs “is a very good way to start. It’s economically and educationally sound,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research and co-author of “The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education.”

Decades of research correlates American students’ academic achievement with their socioeconomic status, including their family’s income and the level of education attained by their parents; in general, poor children have the worst outcomes. Likewise, many studies attest to the benefits of high-quality early education, not only for the students but for the societies in which they grow up. So the debate lately has centered on how best to deliver that instruction, and who should pay for it.

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s call last year for universal preschool for 4-year-olds throughout the United States, Schanzenbach and Elizabeth Cascio, an economist at Dartmouth University, sought to address those questions, and their findings have important implications for Hawaii.

The study, presented in draft form in September and to be published in full this spring (story, Page E5), examined the effects of high-quality preschool programs that have been available since the 1990s to all 4-year-olds in Georgia and Oklahoma, regardless of family income. The study, which compared children and families in those states with others throughout the country, found that the optional tuition-free programs increased preschool enrollment among lower-income children and fueled clear academic benefits for that population.

Among higher-income families, however, the benefits were largely financial, as families saved on out-of-pocket expenses by switching children already enrolled in private preschools to the cheaper public options. Educational outcomes for these children did not improve, partly because the private programs they left were as good or better than the public ones they entered. By targeting the neediest youths, as Abercrombie’s plan does, the state could reach the 4-year-olds found to benefit the most from state-funded preschool — low-income kids who otherwise would not have attended preschool at all — while avoiding the “crowd-out” effect and the drain from high-quality private programs documented in the study, Schanzenbach said.

Standards for a high-quality preschool

What defines quality in a preschool? The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) uses the following 10 metrics:

» The program has comprehensive early-earning standards.
» Teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree.
» Teachers are required to have specialized training in preschool education.
» Assistant teachers are required to have Child Development Associates degree or the equivalent.
» Employees complete at least 15 hours of in-service training each year.
» The maximum class size is 20 students.
» Staff-to-children ratios are 1-to-10 or better.
» The program offers vision, hearing, health and support services.
» The program offers at least one meal daily.
» The program offers site visits.

“This multi-faceted, targeted approach sounds like just what we would advocate,” she said, adding that along with creating its own preschool programs the state also should contract with strong private ones already in existence, providing tuition subsidies for needy students. “We’ve found that the most successful states offer a variety of options. There are excellent private programs to partner with. The issue of quality is very important; the research is clear on that.”

Hawaii voters will decide in November whether to amend the state Constitution to allow the state to fund public enrollment in private preschools, considered a vital link in the long-term effort to expand outstanding educational opportunities for all. Schanzenbach said that contracting with private providers is a common strategy in the roughly 40 other U.S. states that offer taxpayer-supported preschool.

“It surprises me that you’d have to amend the Constitution — in most states it’s just a matter of drawing up a contract — but if that’s what it takes, then, yes, by all means,” she said. “The benefits to society are huge, and definitely outweigh the costs, even simply looking at the economic factors.”

State lawmakers Roy Takumi and Jill Tokuda, chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees, respectively, support Abercrombie’s initiative and the constitutional amendment, and point to a variety of successful private-public partnerships in Georgia, Oklahoma and other states that have expanded educational access. Even schools with religious affiliations could be included, they said, as long as they adapt their curriculums to remove any promotion of religion. “The subsidized students would have a strictly secular curriculum,” Takumi said. Schanzenbach confirmed that had been achieved elsewhere, noting “that a shared commitment to improving our children’s educational experiences has inspired some very creative and wonderful partnerships.”

Passage of the constitutional amendment is by no means assured, of course, especially since some opponents liken public funding for private preschools to a voucher program they fear could expand to higher grades. Hawaii’s attorney general issued an advisory last year explaining why that was not the case, noting that wording of the proposed amendment strictly limits the funding to pre-kindergarten programs.

Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, which includes private preschools, also supports the constitutional amendment and said that in addition he is making it a priority to encourage private donors to fund more financial aid to offset tuition at private programs. The average preschool tuition in Hawaii is about $800 a month, too large a burden for some families that would otherwise seek greater opportunities for their children.

“I think the 21st century ethos is that government can’t do everything. We need to have both private and public organizations working together to build stronger communities, and expanding access to high-quality educational opportunities is absolutely critical to that,” said Witt. “It will take a concerted effort to organize a sustained, revenue-producing organization that could raise funds to provide tuition assistance all the way from early education through high school, but I sure hope that we can make it happen.”

Critics of Abercrombie’s vision say the state should wait until more federal funding is available to bolster the effort, or until the state has more infrastructure in place to better handle the influx of young students. But Schanzenbach said her many years of research on the issue throughout the United States convince her that waiting is the worst possible option.

“You definitely don’t want to wait to develop a total unified system because that would take years. That’s such a waste of a very valuable resource — time — especially knowing that the benefits of preschool, especially for disadvantaged students, are so immediate and long lasting,” she said. “You can do this in small steps, focusing on low-income students first and then broadening out to the rest of the population later if that’s what policymakers want to do. The important thing is to get started.”

Cindy Sunahara, principal of Linapuni School, agrees. She’s on the front lines, leading an early childhood center that serves a population of impoverished, immigrant children who live in public housing in Kalihi. For the past four years, the school — situated within the Kuhio Park Terrace housing complex — has offered a school-readiness program for 4-year-olds that also includes regular parenting classes and other educational activities for their mothers and fathers.

The program is nearly out of funding, a problem that legislative approval of Abercrombie’s budget request would avert.

“One of the reasons we started this was because we recognized how far behind this population was when they entered kindergarten. It’s been so helpful to have a school right in the housing complex, available to help the whole family. This program works well for these children, and for their parents,” said Sunahara. “I sure hope the state doesn’t wait on the funding, because the children aren’t waiting. They are growing up and going on to elementary school one way or another. I’d sure rather they be prepared.”

Study: Target the neediest students

Here are key findings from “The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education,” which compares children and families in Georgia and Oklahoma—which offer high-quality preschool to 4-year-olds regardless of family income—with children and families elsewhere in the country. A draft of the study was presented at the Brookings Panel on Economic Activity in September and released as a working paper in December via the National Bureau of Economic Research. The full report will be published this spring in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

» For lower-income children, public preschool programs increase the likelihood of preschool enrollment, and the amount of time mothers spend with their children reading, playing, doing art projects and talking. Mothers who have no more than a high-school diploma are far more likely to enroll their 4-year-olds in preschool when a tuition-free option is available. Children’s improved performance on standardized tests is documented as late as eighth grade.

» For higher-income children, the public option does not increase overall preschool enrollment because much of this population already enroll in private programs. Instead, the study documents a shift of higher-income kids from private programs to public ones. No effect on test scores is seen. Families’ monthly child-care expenses fall significantly.

» The availability of universal preschool does not increase maternal employment, with the exception of a possible temporary increase among lower-income mothers.

» The authors suggest it would be more cost-effective to design a publicly funded preschool program targeting the neediest children. However, they acknowledge this approach could undermine the academic progress documented among lower-income children if exposure to higher-income peers plays an important role in the overall quality of the educational experience. Simply put: Preschools that attract excellent teachers and highly engaged families foster success for the most students.