Erik Kain has an interesting post up about preschool where he talks about the importance (backed up by research) of early childhood education. Two problems he states: a) universal preschool is expensive and b) while programs like Head Start do great things, they tend to segregate poor kids. He suggests granting vouchers to low-income families for private preschool.
Normally, I am voucher-averse, but in the case of early childhood education, the idea is worth consideration. Where vouchers in K-12 can draw kids and funding away from an existing robust public system, not to mention fund the teaching of religious fundamentalism and xenophobia, there is only a very small public preschool "system" and very few middle- or high-income families send their kids to any kid of public preschool, and I wonder what percentage of low-income families do. On the other hand, as this HuffPo commentary questions about K-12 vouchers: How much would these vouchers actually be worth? Would they really cover the full cost of private preschool (which is often quite expensive itself)? Would there be enough spaces in private preschools to accommodate those who would normally enroll in public preschool programs like Head Start? Would it ultimately be more realistic, cost effective, and serve to better educate our youngest students to build a more robust public preschool system?
DC public schools just launched universal pre-K for three and four-year-olds. As far as I know, families can either enroll their kids in their neighborhood school's program or they can lottery in to other programs.
On the one hand, universal pre-K is quite expensive and I've heard the criticism in DC that with so many budget cuts, the city shouldn't be spending money on funding preschool for higher income families when other K-12 programs and students so direly need the funding.
On the other hand, I can surmise that if a program is universal, it's more likely to get a more economically diverse (meaning not just low-income folks) student body, which means less segregation of the poorest students. Studies have shown that less segregation benefits them. (That being considered, there's always segregation because of segregated neighborhoods--housing policy that aims to desegregate neighborhoods may be a much better way to skin that cat.) Also, I wonder if universal pre-K will hook more higher income DC residents to the public schools and keep them there, leading to a more robust system.
There is also the problem of quality. Will these universal pre-K programs be of high-quality and be developmentally appropriate for preschoolers? Or will they be doing way more academics than they should be?
It will be interesting to see what happens in DC. I certainly hope someone has plans to study what happens to these students over time--it seems like a great opportunity.
UPDATE: Speaking of early childhood education, check out this great article in Ed Week about public pre-K - 3 initiatives.