Congress has a plan for universal pre-K. Will states choose?

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WASHINGTON – Almost a fifth of President Joe Biden’s massive $ 3.5 trillion social spending program is spent on low-cost care for children from birth to kindergarten – investments that would benefit single parents and low-income families.

But how states implement their pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-olds – or whether they even decide to accept the money, especially in red states, like Louisiana, – would have an effect. deep into the quality of education these young children receive.

It is also critical to know whether preschool teachers will be required to have four-year degrees, the researchers say, which is often not the case in private daycares or home care.

This assumes that the ambitious plan to increase spending on universal pre-K survives ongoing negotiations over the price of Biden’s “Build Back Better” package.

Two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have called for a drastic reduction in the size of the social spending program. Manchin said Thursday he would not support a bill greater than $ 1.5 trillion, putting many priorities, such as education, on the chopping block.

Representative Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), In a recent House Education and Labor Committee hearing, opposed any cuts to education provisions. “Even with the robust investments offered here, we are still neglecting vital programs,” Wilson said.

New partnership with states, localities

As part of the comprehensive $ 3.5 trillion plan, Congress would allocate $ 450 billion for universal pre-K as well as child custody rights.

The proposal would create a new partnership between federal, state and local governments to provide free preschool for all 3 and 4 year olds.

For more than 50 years, the federal government has provided preschool services to 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families through its Head Start program which serves over a million children, but now Democrats are reportedly expanding it to all children.

If a state chooses to opt for universal preschool, the federal government would pay for the program for the first three years, then reduce until the state pays up to 40% after five years.

Funding for the program will expire completely in seven years, but Democrats hope it will be popular and continue to be renewed, an aide to the House Education and Labor Committee said.

But it would be up to the states to adhere to the program. Local governments would be able to choose even if the state refuses.

It would be a big change for many states.

Only two states, Vermont and Florida, as well as the District of Columbia, now offer universal preschool. Florida offers universal preschool for all 4-year-olds, and Vermont is the only state that offers the same for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Several states have mostly universal programs, such as Georgia, Iowa, and Wisconsin, where a patchwork of preschool programs is offered.

Six states do not have a state-funded pre-K: New Hampshire, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming. However, Montana is working to partially fund a pre-K program.

And some states are creative in funding their pre-K programs. Kansas, Connecticut, and Arizona pay for their preschool programs through tobacco regulations. Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina are using money from a state lottery program to fund pre-K.

Teachers graduated in four years

But even as expanded preschool gains greater prominence in Washington, some researchers are questioning the teacher education requirements included in the plan.

Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is concerned that the legislation protects child care providers who do not have a college degree.

“This bill requires states to allow anyone who has taught in a day care center for three of the past five years never to graduate,” he said. “You have to accept them whether or not they meet your standards. “

Barnett is also the co-principal director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, which produces academic research on the impacts of high quality early education for all young children.

He points out that some states, like New York and New Jersey, require early childhood instructors for private and public preschools to have a four-year degree or master’s degree in child care development.

If Congress foresees grandfathers in a workforce that is not required to have a four-year degree, this in turn could affect the quality of education some children receive, has t -he declares. Often, private or home child care providers have two-year diplomas or high school diplomas.

States would be able to decide on the pedagogical skills necessary to circumvent the requirement for a diploma. This provision was included to develop a mixed preschool program, which includes public, private or family care centers for early childhood programs that were already in place, said an assistant from the education and labor committee of bedroom.

Barnett found in his research that preschool teachers with four-year degrees are more effective in the classroom than teachers without this level of education.

Researchers at George Mason University and the University of Virginia also studied how Miami’s black and Latino children fare in several types of state-funded preschool programs based in public schools, daycares. or home daycare. Public pre-K programs required teachers to have four-year degrees.

They find that “Black and Latino children in public school preschool programs consistently demonstrated greater kindergarten readiness compared to their classmates in day care and home day care.”

Poverty reductions observed

Regarding the benefits of preschool, the federal government has studied early childhood development through preschool programs and concluded that preschool programs can reduce poverty and inequalities.

In another long-term study, the Georgetown University Center for Research on Children in the US investigated the benefits of the universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds in Tulsa, Okla., For 20 years. years.

Bill Gormley, professor at Georgetown and co-director of the center, find that the Tulsa program had positive effects until college. Children in the program tend to perform better in reading and math and are less likely to drop a grade than children who did not enroll in kindergarten.

“The cognitive gains were really pretty substantial,” he said. “Our first findings showed that the first program was incredibly successful. “

It focused on a class of about 4,000 children from low-income and middle-class backgrounds who started the pre-K program in 2006.

“The underprivileged children benefited more, but the middle class children certainly benefited as well,” he said.

He is currently working on research to see if these benefits last until high school. He hopes to understand whether Tulsa’s early childhood education programs end up producing higher high school graduation rates and higher college enrollment rates.

Will pre-K be a priority?

In Congress, lawmakers continue to debate the size of the social spending bill, but leaders insist they will keep early childhood education high on the priority list.

Progressive members have threatened to vote against a separate bill providing increased funding for roads and bridges if programs like Universal Pre-K were cut.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Stressed her commitment to upholding provisions relating to children, such as universal kindergarten, during a press conference Thursday.

I just told my leadership that the reconciliation bill was the culmination of my service to Congress because it was about children, ”she said. “It’s about health, their education, the economic security of their families, the security of their families, a clean and safe environment in which they can thrive.

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