How West Virginia Created Universal Pre-K

One of the most popular measures in President Biden’s social safety net bill, at least according to the polls, is the universal, free kindergarten.

It also appears to be one of the more acceptable parts of the bill for Senator Joe Manchin, a key moderate Democrat who insisted on drastically reducing the bill’s $ 3.5 trillion price tag. While Mr Manchin has repeatedly raised concerns about spending on paid vacation, child care and child tax credits, he said he was “fully” on the goal of pre -universal kindergarten.

Maybe that’s because all 4-year-olds in his own state of West Virginia already have access to a free public preschool. Indeed, the West Virginia program, seen as a national model, was partially rolled out during Mr. Manchin’s tenure as governor, from 2005 to 2010, with bipartisan support.

But the state’s agenda also shows why the nationwide rollout of Universal Pre-K could be bumpy. West Virginia has faced challenges in funding, staffing, and locating physical space – and it took not just years, but a decade, to become established. There is also disagreement over the impact of the program on the state’s historically poor academic performance.

Policymakers say preschool has become an accepted part of West Virginia’s public education system. More than two-thirds of 4-year-olds enrolled last year.

The program “is an illustration of what people say they want to do,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

West Virginia has one of the highest child and family poverty rates in the country and one of the lowest median household incomes. But the program’s availability for all families, regardless of their ability to pay, has helped make it popular.

Indeed, even professional families in the predominantly rural state have struggled to find quality preschool education.

Lloyd G. Jackson II, a former Democratic state senator who was instrumental in shaping the program, recalled that his wife drove two hours a day to take their sons, now in their thirties, to kindergarten.

“Out of 55 West Virginia counties, I guess in two-thirds there wouldn’t have been access no matter how much money you had,” Jackson said.

This lack of preschools contributed to the long deployment. The state legislature enacted universal access to kindergarten in 2002; the program did not take full effect until 10 years later.

Other states share this problem. About 60 percent of rural Americans live in communities considered “child care deserts” because of the shortage of licensed daycares and preschool seats.

“It’s hard for politicians to say they’ve put us on a 20-year path, but that’s really the lesson of places like West Virginia,” Professor Barnett said. “At the current rate, it would take 100 to 150 years before we have universal preschool. If you did it in 50 years, it would be a huge acceleration. If you did it in 20, that would be amazing.

In recent years, the West Virginia legislature, which has shifted from Democratic to Republican control, has placed less emphasis on program development – to serve all 3-year-olds, for example, as they would. the Biden plan – and more on priorities. such as the creation of charter schools and education savings accounts.

That’s why advocates hope to capitalize on Washington’s current interest in preschool. But other early childhood education experts have warned that the president’s plan to spend money on wealthier families takes away the ability to improve programs for students with greater needs – in paying teachers more, for example, or extending the school day to better match parents. ‘ Working hours.

And some question whether pouring money into pre-K, pointing out that the years from birth to age 3 are perhaps more crucial for brain development and for bridging gaps. future gaps in academic achievement.

“You’re not going to find a brain researcher in the country who thinks that going to school when you’re 4 instead of 5 is going to be a game-changer for kids,” said Katharine B. Stevens, a former early childhood researcher. affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank.

The dollars would be better spent, she said, on improving antenatal care, helping mothers develop parenting skills and providing quality child care to disadvantaged infants and toddlers.

Kindergarten students who had participated in the West Virginia preschool program demonstrated more sophisticated math, literacy and language skills, according to a 2018 study. But the case for longer-term academic benefits is more difficult to argue.

Adam Kissel, a senior researcher at the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a conservative think tank, said the existence of a universal pre-kindergarten in the state had not stopped West Virginia from showing consistently good performance. poor in fourth grade reading and math.

But educators in West Virginia pointed to other benefits of the state’s approach to pre-K. One of the unusual features of the program is that it serves children eligible for Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income families, alongside middle-class students and affluent families, often in the same wards. class.

At Brookhaven Elementary School in Morgantown, five of 13 Allison Stump Preschool students qualify for Head Start and receive additional support. But all of her students benefit from the hands-on, play-based curriculum and the opportunity to be screened early for learning and developmental disabilities, Ms. Stump said.

By the time they get to kindergarten, these children will be used to the routines of the classroom. Ms. Stump noted that her job requires extensive training, preparation for classes, and an endless amount of energy.

“It’s very time consuming,” she says. “There isn’t a lot of seating.”

The West Virginia program was funded without raising taxes; much of the state has lost its school-age population in recent years, meaning that dollars could more easily be reallocated to kindergarten.

While many districts across the country lost students during the coronavirus pandemic, a preschool expansion of the scope President Biden envisioned would be much more complex to fund. His plan for pre-K, child care, paid time off and other family supports would be partially paid for by raising taxes for the rich. Like the expansion of Medicaid, it would also require states to contribute dollars, which some might not want to do.

And any national expansion would face the challenge of finding places to put the kids. Some students in West Virginia are offered preschool places in day care centers, where workers can earn much less than pre-K teachers who work in elementary schools.

Finding and training enough teachers was a problem in West Virginia, and one of the reasons it took a full decade to roll out the program. In New York City, with its wealth of workers and educational infrastructure, Mayor Bill de Blasio managed to launch his universal pre-K plan in less than a year. But current labor shortages could make this more difficult.

Quality education makes the difference. Ms. Stump, 26, has a master’s degree and began her career with over 1,000 hours of teaching experience.

This training was crucial for his ability to work with children like Walker Garver, who suffers from autism spectrum disorders and is non-verbal. She teaches him sign language and social skills.

Walker’s mother Carrie Garver said her son likely wouldn’t be in kindergarten at all without the public program, as many private schools don’t serve children like him. And the fact that Walker has a place to go during the day means she can continue her graduate studies.

Free pre-K was “life-changing,” Ms. Garver said. “And for the child, that’s it.


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