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  Last Updated on 07/13/2018

Brain Child: Universal Kindergarten Offered in Many States

by Alison Glass, Scripps Howard News Service, May 26, 2003

One 4-year-old entered Mandy Deal's pre-kindergarten class this school year not able to name different colors or shapes and not knowing her own last name.

Now the child can do all those things, plus write her first and last name and count to 20.

The 19 children in Deal's northeast Georgia classroom build towers with blocks, look at books and play learning games on computers. A child-sized table and a play stove are highlights of a well equipped "housekeeping center" that teaches the basics of day-to-day living while also developing motor skills.

The children experiment, interact and learn.

Across the country, scientists, advocates for children and policy-makers are arguing for more classrooms like Deal's classrooms that develop 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers mentally, emotionally and socially. They argue on the basis of recent brain science, which shows that what happens in a child's preschool years heavily influences how successful the child will be in school.

At least 40 states offer some type of state-supported pre-kindergarten often for children from low-income families. All states mandate services for preschool children with disabilities.

No state offers universal preschool for 3-year-olds, but the idea of expanding pre-kindergarten programs to that age has gotten a lot of attention.

"In recent years, nothing in the field of public education has been more dramatic than the explosion of state interest and involvement in pre-kindergarten services," said Walter Gilliam, a research scientist at Yale University.

"Even in these very tight budget times, these officials see it as important to make a down payment on this type of program," said Amy Wilkins, executive director of The Trust for Early Education. A report by the non-profit, Committee for Economic Development in New York says part day, part-school year preschool costs $4,000 to $5,000 per child per year. The total national bill would be $25 billion to $35 billion, says the group of working and retired CEOs.

In Georgia, every 4-year-old has been eligible since 1995 for free, voluntary pre-kindergarten. The Georgia pre-kindergarten system began in 1992 as a limited pilot program. It expanded rapidly using state lottery money.

In September 1995, then-Gov. Zell Miller successfully pushed to make all 4-year-olds eligible for the program, adding more than 45,000 children in just two years.

No research has been done comparing the academic achievement or standardized test scores of Georgia students who have been through universal pre-kindergarten with those who have not. However, studies that have surveyed teachers and parents show those groups generally have a positive view of how well the program prepared children for kindergarten.

"There was a high degree of school readiness on the part of these students," researcher Gary Henry of Georgia State University said.

Several states are trying to catch up with Georgia.

In Illinois and Pennsylvania, the governors have called for phasing in pre-kindergarten programs available to all children.

In New York, the 1997 legislation that created universal pre-kindergarten called for the program to serve all 4-year-olds by 2002. However, budget problems have limited state financial support. Gov. George Pataki's budget proposal for the coming fiscal year includes no money for the program, and some legislators have responded with calls for a constitutional amendment modeled on one passed in Florida last year.

Florida voters approved an amendment to create a voluntary and free pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds by 2005.

Oklahoma has passed a law making all 4-year-olds eligible for pre-kindergarten. West Virginia is considering legislation that 4-year-olds be offered pre-kindergarten by 2012.

Some municipalities including Los Angeles County and Washington have extensive pre-kindergarten programs.

In a 2002 survey of 3,230 voters across the country, roughly 87 percent said state governments should provide enough money so every American family can send its 3- and 4-year-old children to a high-quality preschool program. The National Institute for Early Education Research commissioned the survey.

Pew Charitable Trusts and the Trust for Early Education established the institute as part of an effort to encourage universal access to high-quality early education for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Requirements for teacher qualifications, teacher-pupil ratios and other aspects of pre-kindergarten program operations vary among states. In Georgia pre-kindergarten providers must offer full school days, but in New York and Oklahoma, centers can operate half-day programs.

While curriculums vary researchers say it already is clear that having a set course of study for a pre-kindergarten class is better than not having one at all.

"Parents should expect to see a curriculum, and expect to see parts of that curriculum going on in the classroom," said Cindy Eaton, curriculum specialist at Hart County Head Start, in Georgia.

Researchers say pre-kindergarten instruction should be geared to support the intellectual and social development of the children it serves and should not be simply a watered-down kindergarten.

"This is intellectual development time in children's lives, not an academic time," said Romona Paul, the assistant superintendent of education in Oklahoma who oversees the state's pre-kindergarten program.

Despite their differences, all state-supported pre-kindergarten programs share one thing in common: They all are voluntary.

Pre-kindergarten advocates say voters likely would not support state programs that force parents to enroll their 3- or 4-year-olds in preschool.

More than 70 percent of Georgia parents have taken advantage of the program.

Penny Crooks enrolled her son and daughter and then became a teacher assistant in her Hart County, Ga., program. She said they got a lot out of the program, both socially and academically.

"I wish every 4-year-old could have it," she said.



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