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