The federal government spends almost $8 billion on preschool programs across the country, mostly on low income 4-year-olds. States spend billions more. But with at least 30 states planning to expand access to pre-K and President Obama promoting "preschool for all," what constitutes a quality preschool program?
NPR's education team set out to better understand what separates the nation's best programs from the rest, and that journey led to a surprising place: Tulsa, Okla. You can read more about early childhood education and what sets Tulsa apart — and watch a video from a Tulsa preschool classroom, here.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to talk now about preschool. It's been in the news a lot lately, thanks in large part to President Obama. For years, he's urged Congress to help states pay for what he calls...
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: High quality early childhood education.
High quality preschool.
High quality childhood education.
MONTAGNE: Even if Congress hasn't gotten the message, the states are listening. Last year, 30 states increased funding for preschool. This week, NPR's Education Team tackles the question at the center of that funding debate. When the president and researchers talk about high quality preschool, we'll look at what they mean and what separates the best from the rest.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: In his last two State of the Union speeches, President Obama has said it would cost the federal government $75 billion over 10 years to help every state provide high quality preschool to every child.
OBAMA: Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high quality early education.
SANCHEZ: Mr. Obama says his plan could be paid for entirely by raising cigarette taxes by 94 cents a pack. And while he's praised states for expanding preschool...
OBAMA: The problem is we're still not reaching enough kids.
SANCHEZ: State-run programs today reach just 30 percent of all the eligible children out there. As for the president's $75 billion proposal, it was a non-starter with Congress.
RUSS WHITEHURST: Well, there are a couple of reasons not to fund it.
SANCHEZ: Russ Whitehurst is with the Brookings Institution. He was a top researcher at the U.S. Education Department during the George W. Bush administration He says the evidence that preschoolers are better off as they move up in grade is quite weak.
WHITEHURST: Indeed, it looks like the effects pretty much disappear at the end of the pre-K year. But it depends on the program and which kids.
SANCHEZ: Poor children are more likely to benefit says Whitehurst, but he wants more evidence.
Some researchers say one big reason so many preschool programs fall short is that they're underfunded. That often means a poor curriculum and unqualified teachers, so kids suffer.
STEVE BARNETT: Those kids are going to be in a spiral of failure. And we set that up by not adequately investing before they get to kindergarten.
SANCHEZ: Steve Barnett is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. He says a majority of low income 4-year-olds are in poor quality programs. And those who get no preschool at all start kindergarten a year or more behind developmentally.
BARNETT: It's very clear from the research in the United States that our problems with inequality, our problems with school failure, are set when children walk in the school door.
SANCHEZ: Deborah Phillips is a developmental psychologist and researcher at Georgetown University. She says the quality of preschool across the country varies tremendously.
DEBORAH PHILLIPS: There's a whole array of different kinds of child care programs, ranging from settings that are not regulated at all or they're operating illegally under the radar.
SANCHEZ: Not only that, says Phillips...
PHILLIPS: There is a vast reluctance to create uniformity in terms of either quality or curriculum.
SANCHEZ: Still, there are exceptions. Georgia, New Jersey, West Virginia and Oklahoma have excellent state-run preschool programs. Phillips conducted a seven-month study of the program in Tulsa Oklahoma, and was so impressed she calls it a model for the nation. Here's why. It's well-funded at about $7500 per child; there's one teacher for every 10 children; teachers are paid about $42,000 a year on average; they must be fully certified in early childhood education and have at least a bachelor's degree.
Phillips says the investment is paying off. For every dollar Oklahoma spends on preschool, it saves at least three dollars down the line. Kids are less likely to repeat a grade and less likely to need expensive special education or remediation. Its one reason there's been no controversy in Oklahoma about preschool spending, says Phillips. The other reason...
PHILLIPS: This is a statewide, universal pre school program paid for with public funds, voluntary but free to any family that wants it.
SANCHEZ: In other words, giving everybody access to quality preschool is good politics. Today, Oklahoma has the highest rate of preschool enrollment of any state -70 percent.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Claudio goes to a preschool in Oklahoma to see that high quality program in action.
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