Schools turn to universal preschool

Preschool playground, Philippines, The Learning Connection Preschool, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Preschool playground, Philippines, The Learning Connection Preschool, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Public officials tout preparedness factor but finding funding is another story

The evidence is clear. Quality preschool education programs:

= Help children enter school ready to succeed.

= Promote positive child development.

= Prevent violence.

= Help parents move from welfare to work.

= Improve employee performance and productivity.

= Aid economic development and growth.

In fact, the most recent data from a 20-year study in Chicago estimates that, ” for every $1 that we spend for preschool they can save $7 down the line, in terms of special ed referrals, in terms of earning power, in terms of better health for children, in terms of youngsters later on not being in the juvenile justice system,” said Julian Crocker, San Luis Obispo County’s school superintendent.

Crocker was in town to address the Tri-County Education Coalition on a subject near and dear to the education community’s heart: universal preschool.

While subsidized programs like Head Start and state-funded preschools are available, those programs are overcrowded, with waiting lists for about 91 percent of the local Head Start programs.

Families living just above the poverty level are the least likely to find a quality program, Crocker said.

“They may not qualify for assistance, they may not qualify for Head Start, and they do not have the resources to pay for a quality private preschool.”

First Five California is one of the major efforts under way to optimize early childhood development.

“The whole idea of closing the achievement gap before they start kindergarten, which makes a lot of sense,” said Crocker.

“What they’re doing is trying to target the lower decile schools and … to prove the value so that, at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the idea of universal preschool will be state-funded.”

Finding funding for universal preschool is one obstacle, but Crocker sees organization as another big challenge. “There’s a lot of players involved,” he said.

He acknowledged that many people in public education are overwhelmed with responsibilities.

“Many times I have the thought that, my gosh, I can barely handle all the students I have now. What are you talking about trying to add 3 and 4 year olds to the mix, too?” he said.

“We need to change that viewpoint and I would hate it if we look back 10 years from now and have another whole system dealing with Pre-K that’s not part of the public school system. I think the most damaging thing we could end up with is a system of preschools that are separate from the public elementary schools.”

There are two major preschool initiatives in the works right now, Preschool for All, and an initiative sponsored by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell.

“One of the major things that’s going to be necessary is some kind of unified approach. … I think that’s our first challenge,” Crocker said.

As to the debate about whether a quality preschool program emphasizes child development or academics, Crocker dismissed it.

“To me it’s not an argument. It’s like should you have water or food,” he said.

“You need both of them. I think sometimes we hurt ourselves within the education community by staking out territory.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon