If you’re a low-income single mother, or, for that matter, a low-income married parent, one piece of bad news about trying to raise your kids in the U.S. is that our child care system is abysmally insufficient, and our pre-K programs are nearly as bad. If you have money, you can bypass all of that by hiring a nanny or paying for private child care or pre-school.
If you don’t, though, you’re kind of stuck.
The good news is that this is changing, and pretty rapidly. With increased concern about a lack of kindergarten readiness, the rich-poor/black-white achievement gap, and too many high school drop-outs, states are beginning to get the message: we need to get kids, especially those most at-risk, ready for school, and for life. Over the past 15 years, an increasing number of states have invested in public pre-kindergarten programs.
Some are quite good, with small classes, qualified teachers, and even subsidiary services. But where you live can make a big difference.
In Georgia or Oklahoma, you don’t have to be rich, or poor, to enroll your four-year-old child in high-quality pre-K. Anyone is welcome, and it is free. Indeed, both states currently serve over half of their four-year-olds. The same will likely soon be true in Illinois, which may also include three-year-olds, and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is exploring that possibility, too. Florida is just starting to implement “universal” pre-K for four-year-olds, but neither the access nor program quality is yet clear.
Others – Kentucky, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Connecticut – have high-quality programs, but only for a limited set of low-income children. Other states, like Texas and New York, serve large numbers of children but are not very high-quality.
Eleven states, including most of the Central Mountain region and Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Nevada, have no state-funded programs at all. (Stay tuned for a color-coded map showing each state’s status on pre-K coming soon!)
Research shows that high-quality pre-K can boost the school readiness of at-risk children, significantly reduce their odds of being held back in school, placed in special ed, or dropping out, and even prevent their involvement in the criminal justice system or, for girls, of becoming teen moms.
But how can we push more states to step up to the plate and invest in it?
One way is to figure out why those states that have implemented programs have done so. In other words, what is it that they want as a return on this investment?
It sounds like an odd question – don’t policy-makers know why they put money and effort into a policy?
But the answer too often is, “No, not really.” We can all probably think, off the bat, of instances in which states (or countries, or schools, or people) seem to just copy a good idea from a neighbor, or act on a whim or a hope. But states do have real needs, and understanding what those needs are, and how pre-K programs might fulfill them, might help advocates better “sell” pre-K. It might also help a public tired of too many attempts to fix seemingly intractable problems buy in to a really good one and keep it going.
My theory is that different states have different reasons for their pre-K investments.
Specifically, I believe that cultural and geographic differences – progressive versus conservative and southern versus non-southern states – may drive different types of pre-K investment in different states.
I also think that they might be focusing on different aspects, with some states more interested in getting more children enrolled (access), while others want a high-quality program but aren’t as bent on high numbers of attendees.
If so, different states may be inclined to create different types of programs to best fit their needs.
My hope is that finding answers to these questions might help advocates to get more states on board and help those that already have programs better design, evaluate and maintain them.
I’ll be returning to post periodically on evolving findings from my work in this area.
I welcome your feedback, whether from a research perspective, that of an advocate seeking tools, parents looking for information about pre-K programs, or others. The more we talk about how to improve this work, the better the results will be!
Elaine Weiss is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She presented her research, "What Motivates U.S. States to Invest in Pre-Kindergarten Programs" at the 2007 Stepping Stones Research Briefing.
For more perspectives on the research briefing, please see Peter Tatian’s post, "How a research briefing was born" and Lisa Claudy Fleischman’s post, "Learning Through a Gender Lens." Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more updates and perspectives from the researchers who presented at the 2007 Stepping Stones Research Briefing.