Continued from page 1

The District of Columbia goes a step further, with universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. The program is viewed by many as not just a way to help low-income children in the historically low-performing district, but also as a driver to keep middle- and upper-class families in the city and the school system.

At D.C.’s Powell Elementary School, 3- and 4-year-olds sit cross-legged with whiteboards and black markers in hand as teacher Laura Amling belts out, “Up, down, up, down” over classical music. The tots scribble marks similar to an “M” at her command.

This program is not child care. The schedule is filled with Spanish and other lessons, including “buddy reading,” with kids describing books to one another.

The kids eat breakfast and lunch family style, so they learn proper etiquette. Songs are sung as the children move to activities to help curb behavior problems. Teachers teach children coping skills and make home visits to bond with parents and children.

While it’s too early to know the long-term impact, Principal Janeece Docal says kindergarteners with a pre-K background are writing sentences and discussing books with 3rd-grade level content.

“They trust their teachers. They love their friends,” Docal said. “They are invested in their education and you can see that they own that classroom.”

Over the past decade, state dollars for prekindergarten more than doubled nationally to $5.1 billion, while at the same time access increased from a little more than 700,000 children to more than 1 million, according to Pre-K Now.

But cuts in state-funded programs began showing up in the 2009-10 school year, according to Barnett’s group. He said he’s concerned not just that fewer children will be served, but that the quality of the programs will also be affected.

Still, early childhood learning advocates say they are encouraged, in part, because of a recent federal emphasis on improving early childhood programs.

Nine states were awarded a collective $500 million in grants last month to improve access to and the quality of early childhood programs for kids from birth to age 5. A month earlier, President Barack Obama announced new rules under which lower-performing Head Start programs will have to compete for funding.

Not everyone is convinced it’s worth the cost.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute of Stanford University, said the government should tightly target its resources on families who really need the prekindergarten programs and otherwise aren’t going to get them.

Finn, who has written a book about preschool policy, said Obama’s effort on Head Start is a beginning, but more needs to be done. Finn also questioned whether the government was capable of funding universal prekindergarten at a quality level.

“What the universal programs do is they provide an unnecessary windfall for a lot of families that are otherwise doing this on their own just fine, or pretty well, and not enough for kids who really need it,” Finn said.

Richard M. Clifford, senior scientist at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said other developed countries — including much of Europe — provide prekindergarten programs.

Story Continues →