The Times West Virginian

Opinion

June 26, 2014

The jury is still out on merits of universal pre-K programs

West Virginia passed legislation in 2002 requiring public schools to expand access to pre-school education programs that were originally implemented in some local districts in 1983.

Since then, the state has ranked high nationally, coming in at No. 6 for pre-kindergarten enrollment for 4-year-olds, and No. 8 nationally for enrollment of 3-year-olds.

In 2013, some 16,000 West Virginia children were enrolled in pre-school programs at a cost of approximately $6,000 per student a year, or approximately $96 million a year.

Providing high-quality pre-K and rich educational opportunities to all children is paramount to their future success, said state schools Superintendent James Phares.

“Kindergarten teachers will tell you children who attend high-quality preschool enter kindergarten ready to learn with skills that children who don’t attend pre-K have yet to develop,” Phares said in 2013. “It kick-starts learning.”

Not everyone is in agreement.

Melanie Cutright, a principal in Wood County, told lawmakers in Charleston last week that West Virginia’s strong push into pre-K education may actually be hurting kids.

Cutright was referring to the practice of including 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in the same classroom, which she said creates an impossible environment for teachers and students since kids at that age develop at such different rates.

Parents of 5-year-olds have some expectation of their children being prepared for kindergarten the next year, she said, but with an age and developmental range so disparate, lesson planning is challenging.

“It’s difficult to make sure instruction is appropriate for a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old,” she said.

Cutright was not condemning pre-K education, but concerns about its worth — both to young children and to taxpayers — are growing.

The issue is important, because in his State of the Union address in January 2013, President Obama made a pledge for universal pre-K programs nationwide, which would cost taxpayers billions.

Obama claimed the science was settled, and that a pre-K program nationwide would go far to heal all problems with public education in America.

Lindsey Burke, an education writer for the Heritage Foundation, noted at the time:

“Georgia has had universal preschool for all 4-year-olds since 1995, yet (high school) graduation rates have failed to significantly improve. In Oklahoma, home to taxpayer-funded pre-school since 1998, graduation rates have actually declined.”

In addition, she says, universal pre-school has failed to reduce the reading achievement gap between white children and black children. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that in Oklahoma it remains exactly the same — 22 percent.

In Georgia, white children are still posting scores about two grade levels ahead of black children, she says.

All of us in West Virginia know how important education is to unlocking the brightest future for our children. We have shown we are willing to innovate — and pay for — new ideas and programs that promise to improve the performance of our schoolkids.

But universal pre-K is a cautionary tale that deserves more study on whether it is truly as effective as its backers say it is.

For us, that jury is still out.

(Beckley) Herald-Register

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