Voices in Education

The Need for Socioeconomic Balance in PreK Classrooms
Barack Obama spoke of his support for investing in early childhood education during the last presidential debate, at a campaign moment when he was being very cautious: a clear sign that public opinion about early childhood education’s value is solidified. But the actual investment plan and implementation is less established, as evidenced in David Wilson’s article, "When Worlds Collide: Universal preK brings new challenges for public elementary schools" (HEL, November/December 2008). While policymakers are willing to invest in universal preK, they struggle with optimal implementation.

Connecticut wrestles with its 1997 School Readiness Initiative. Funded in the wake of the Sheff vs. O’Neil desegregation lawsuit, the state funded preschool for the poorest cities. It was one remedy for educational inequality. State appropriations now top $100 million per year, yet Connecticut is still challenged in designing an comprehensive early childhood system. And the funding structure of the Readiness program has resulted in preschools that are primarily racially and economically isolated.

Two designs are emerging nationally as potential early childhood delivery systems. One is building a new system that is comprehensive, with child and family services. The other is a public school model like those in Boston, Oklahoma, and Yonkers. Sometimes the two are combined.

Connecticut’s School Readiness initiative strives for the comprehensive model. Eleven years later, it is far from complete. There is no consensus on a workforce development plan, teacher qualifications, required human services, curriculum, or program quality measures. The state has spent millions of dollars on systems planning with the hope that a comprehensive system would result in better outcomes for children.

Connecticut could have chosen a public school model with existing public schools as the delivery system. Facilities exist, teacher and leader qualifications are defined, and schools have capacity for curriculum development. Schools also have social workers, psychologists, and special educators.

But public schools have problems too. Wilson quotes Boston’s early childhood director, Jason Sachs, describing public schools as “gloriously unprepared to serve preschoolers.” They lack early childhood expertise. Public school preschools suffer from an overemphasis on academic goals and an under-emphasis on intellectual and social goals, as Lillian Katz suggests. Public schools are not as focused and skilled at building family relationships. Ellen Frede’s proposal to change the structure of elementary schools to include prek—third grade schools would help mitigate some of these challenges.

One community using a successful public school model with economically integrated enrollment is West Hartford, CT. In 2007, the school district reported that in their two public school classrooms, the vocabulary achievement gap closed by 42 percent. These findings mirror other findings about the benefits of the economically integrated preschools. Teachers in the public schools like Jenny Dorl report important social and emotional readiness goals met as well.

Focusing programs on only low-income students, as Bruce Fuller suggests, makes economic integration very unlikely. West Hartford’s integrated program is unusual. The vast majority of Connecticut’s School Readiness classrooms target primarily low-income families. This is ironic given that the impetus for state funding of preschool was as a remedy for racially and economically isolated education. Socioeconomic integration is a quality component that affects child outcomes and it is reasonable to believe that public support would expand if more families received the entitlement.

Boston built a preschool system onto their public schools, then backtracked to have schools ready, teachers ready and leaders ready—before they could have kids ready for kindergarten. Boston’s approach maximized student access to preschool from the outset, and then built on and improved an existing system.

Connecticut’s School Readiness program serves 9,000 children currently, but eleven years of planning a new comprehensive system is ongoing. Expanding expenditures for planning have no end in sight, while an estimated 9,000 low-income three- and four-year-olds are still in need of preschool placement, according to the Connecticut State Board of Education. (2006)

Evidence supports the premise that preschool attendance positively affects later school and life success. Yet, one quarter of three- and four-year-olds in the U.S. do not have access to preschool, according to the 2007 NIEER State of Preschool Report. As states and cities continue to expand preschool access, questions of how to build the system need to take into consideration the need for socioeconomic balance and the need to assure the highest quality programs, while also addressing the emergency created by large numbers of children without access to any preschool.

About the Author: Rep. Beth Bye, a former preschool program director, currently represents West Hartford, Avon and Farmington in the Connecticut state legislature.