Legislating early childhood education: good intentions

A little political reflection from a parent and preschool director.

Two senate bills that will affect early childhood education are in the news these days. These bills include some good innovation, but also threaten to weaken the good that already exists for our youngest students. SB 837 and SB 1123 each lower the age of publicly-funded education, and are good in many ways, yet could chip away at the strength of existing preschools and the expertise and community experience they provide.

I’d like to look at this from four perspectives: early childhood education, parenting, elementary education, and just me.

From the standpoint of an early childhood educator, the bills are good. They advocate for early childhood education. They take into account all the data showing that early childhood education raises better learners and stronger members of the community. Children who participate in preschools do better in the long term, academically and socially. It is the stuff educators have been saying and defending for years. The state of California has a good track record in this regard. In the 1950s the state began to establish a network of parent education cooperative schools (with education standards and curriculum guidelines) which were funded through public adult education schools. Many of these (such as those in the Sequoia Union high School District, and Santa Clara Unified) are still in operation, even though public funding has been recently eliminated. These bills add to the state’s long support of the need for early childhood education.

From the standpoint of parents, these bills are good. The intent of the legislature is to provide a stable and comprehensive early-learning and educational support system for children from birth to five years of age that promotes access to safe, high-quality, part-day and full-day services that support the development of the whole child, especially for those children who need it most… this means free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds. What can be better than that for parents?

From the standpoint of elementary schools, they might be good. If funding is provided, schools will be able to develop environments, add equipment, and plan for other upgrades to prepare for incoming preschoolers. Curriculum will be designed, staff will get special training, and the transition between preschool and elementary curricula could be seamless.

I recognize the good intentions behind the bills, and the potential good if they are implemented. However, as a preschool director, parent, and member of the community, I wonder what will happen to all the wonderful existing preschools in our neighborhoods?

The government might spend millions building the new system from the ground up … when the infrastructure to support young children at the beginning of their school careers already exists around the corner, down the street, in the neighborhood preschool. Could it be possible to legislate preschool for all without ignoring the resources that already exist? Existing, well-established, quality programs should be taken full advantage of: it’s hard to imagine, even at the end of what would likely be a difficult transition, that the level of specialized expertise available in established preschools can be replicated any time soon.

The developmental needs (social, physical, cognitive, spiritual, emotional) of 3 and even 4 year olds are very different than those of elementary school children. They need to be in environments designed to meet these needs. Environment includes classroom, materials, play yard, curriculum, and staff. Staff must have strong backgrounds in age-appropriate child development. These schools must also attend to the unique needs of parents at the beginning of their journey: they must be able to support families, involve parents in their child’s education, teach parenting skills, and work to bridge the home/school gap.

High quality programs which meet these needs already exist, but their existence will inevitably be threatened by low-quality, free alternatives. If funding were given to existing preschools, more children from lower-income families would benefit from the enrichment which leads to elementary school success.

What you can learn from reading the bills is that legislators are looking into what they call a mixed delivery system, which means that all kinds of infrastructure can be a part of delivering on the promise of preschool for all. This could mean that the state could start with existing infrastructure, endorsing and funding your local preschools. You can read about it in the literature, it’s a bullet point somewhere in the mix, but I fear that it might be practically lost in the rush to turn funding into an excuse to develop new programs at the expense of what already exists. I think using existing schools should be the primary way early childhood legislation is implemented. I say, start with what is already in place, get 3 and 4 year olds into existing preschools, and let elementary schools stick to what they do well—they have enough on their plate.

Many preschools are already suffering since Transitional Kindergarten is luring kids of a certain age away from Pre K classes. Public schools will take on more and more students (of earlier and earlier ages—ages outside of their training and expertise) while local preschools lose more and more students. I say fund existing preschools that meet key criteria and make preschool affordable for all who choose it. Just let’s keep our wonderful preschools and their well-trained early childhood educators in business … they already exist … for the good of every preschooler.

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