Preschoolers visit a pumpkin patch in Utah. (Photo: Flickr/Phil Scoville)
President Barack Obama brought up several topics that gave us something to chew on, but what genuinely made us stop and think were his proposals on preschool education. Today, the President’s taken that proposal on the road to an Atlanta recreation center to pitch the ambitious plan that he says will save taxpayer money while keeping the deficeit in check.
The proposal involves providing preschool to all four-year-old children living in low- and moderate- income households. Additionally, there would be an expansion of these programs to also include hundreds of thousands of middle class kids, all while incentivizing full-day kindergarten policies.
This stands in direct contrast to the policies of California in regard to preschool, says Celia C. Ayala, Ph.D., CEO for Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP). “The state of California is going backwards in terms of access to quality early education while other states are investing and leaping forward,” Ayala said. “Many other states, with both Republican and Democratic governors, are proposing expansion of early education services while California is doing the opposite.”
LAUP is a non-profit group that supports the developments and operation of hundreds of free or low-cost preschools in Los Angeles County, an area, according to Ayala, in particular need of preschool programs.
“There are hundreds of thousands of three and four-year-olds not attending quality preschool programs in California, and here in Los Angeles County, more than 30,000 four-year-olds are not attending preschool this year.” Only 49 percent of three- and four-year-old children attend preschool in California.
This is especially troubling when considering the widely believed benefits of preschool. Attendees of the early childhood programs are more likely to finish school and less likely to become teen parents or go on welfare, according to Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman, Ph.D.
But not everyone is sold. In response to the State of the Union address, Russ Whitehurst, former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, wrote for the Brookings Institute advocating a more cautious look at the benefits of preschool. “The research on the impact of state pre-K programs is very thin and the results are mixed,” Whitehurst said. “The largest impacts have always been associated with children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. This argues for targeted, intensive programs, not universal ones.”
Still, the Obama proposal is a game changer for LAUP, and the organization’s hope is that it spurs California to reconsider its trend of divestment in early childhood programs.
“We hope President Obama’s proposal prompts action in Sacramento to re-invest in our state’s early education system,” Ayala said. “We are beyond excited that the president has the vision and commitment to propose the implementation of a universal preschool program throughout the nation because all children deserve a strong foundation to help them succeed in school and in life.”
The repercussions of whether cash-strapped California will fit preschool funding into its budget are felt by parents of toddlers now, but by the entire state down the road.