Obama’s new push for preschool for at-risk children
President Obama wants to offer states some $1 billion a year to help them improve preschool and early education programs for at-risk children.
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But the big investments haven't necessarily been done within a meaningful framework, says Sara Mead, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. "You've got this mishmash and a lot of variation in quality, even among programs in the same state," she says.Skip to next paragraph
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These are the shortcomings that the Early Learning Challenge Fund hopes to address. To qualify for the grants, states would have to demonstrate that they're moving toward a more comprehensive system and are willing to invest in early learning and use public-private partnerships to do so.
In many ways, Educare, run by the Chicago advocacy group Ounce of Prevention Fund, is a model of how a high-quality program might look.
The 150 children who attend the center come from the most vulnerable populations. For the first three years, each class of eight children has three teachers, at least one of whom has a BA. That trio remains with the children all three years. Teachers interact on the floor with infants, and they help toddlers learn to self-regulate and express themselves.
The program is expensive, costing about $18,000 per child per year. The funding comes from existing local and federal sources.
Marquia Fields, whose 3-year-old son, Winter, and 19-month-old daughter, Summer, are at the center, says that the child care she used for Winter during his first year "was almost like a coat check." Now, though, "you feel like you almost have a replacement of you" in the teachers, she says.
The results for Educare so far have been strong, with children who attend centers in five cities showing much-improved school readiness, vocabulary, and social skills. "We're trying to demonstrate that it's possible to do this with the public funding stream and that it's an effective and efficient use of public dollars," says Diana Rauner, executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
No high-quality program will be cheap, Ms. Rauner and others say. But money put toward early-childhood development of disadvantaged children earns a return of 10 percent a year in savings down the road, according to James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago. This means lower dropout rates, lower incarceration rates, and more-productive adults.
Statistics also connect early learning with benefits at younger ages – such as lower rates of special-education referrals, points out Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia's education school in Charlottesville. "These programs pay for themselves before [the kids reach] high school," he says.