President Barack Obama's proposal to expand America's government preschools could give thousands of poor Nebraska kids access to high-quality programs, but critics are flinching at the multi-billion-dollar cost.
State-funded preschools currently serve about four in 10 of Nebraska's low-income 4-year-olds.
Advocates point to mounting evidence that quality preschools level the playing field between poor and affluent kids, produce a better-educated workforce and reduce the need for government spending on remedial and special education, welfare and jails.
“I think scientists and economists and business leaders and educators have come to a consensus, but I don't know that the political world is entirely at that table yet,” said Jen Goettemoeller, policy associate for First Five Nebraska, which advocates for early childhood education.
Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, in a statement Friday, said that the program, estimated to cost from $10 billion to $21 billion, appeared “redundant and expensive” in light of the existing federal Head Start program.
Iowa already offers universal voluntary preschool for 4-year-olds.
A national watchdog group ranked both Iowa and Nebraska high for 4-year-olds' access to state-funded preschool in a 2011 report. Iowa ranked 7th and Nebraska 18th, but for total spending on such programs, they ranked 25th and 37th, respectively, the National Institute for Early Education Research reported.
The president's plan calls for cost sharing between the federal government and states to expand high-quality public preschool to reach 4-year-olds from all low- and moderate-income families, defined as earning $46,100 a year or less.
The U.S. Department of Education would allocate dollars to states based their share of 4-year olds from low- and moderate-income families. The money would be distributed to local school districts and other preschool providers to implement the program.
The proposal would include an incentive for states to also serve the children of middle-class families, such as through an income-based sliding pay scale.
Obama pitched his plan last week from a community center in Decatur, Ga.
“In states like Georgia that have made it a priority to educate our youngest children, states like Oklahoma, students don't just show up in kindergarten and first grade more prepared to learn,” Obama said, “they're also more likely to grow up reading and doing math at grade level, graduating from high school, holding a job, even forming more stable families.”
The National Institute for Early Education Research gave Georgia and Oklahoma high marks for providing 4-year-olds access to high quality government preschool. Those states are not high performers on national achievement tests.
Georgia became the first state to offer universal preschool program for 4-year-olds in 1995. It now serves nearly two-thirds of the state's 4-year-olds.
Three years later, Oklahoma became the second state offer free, voluntary access to preschool programs for all 4-year-olds. It now serves about three-quarters of 4-year-olds.
By comparison, nationwide 28 percent of America's 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program in the 2010-2011 school year, the institute said.
On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress math test, Oklahoma and Georgia trailed Nebraska and Iowa in math and reading for all test-takers. Low-income eighth-graders from Oklahoma and Georgia scored no different from students in Nebraska and Iowa. In eighth-grade reading, low-income students from Nebraska had higher scores than similar groups from the three other states.
On the 2011 ACT college entrance exam, Nebraska and Iowa students outscored their counterparts in Georgia and Oklahoma.
Goettemoeller said the benefits of preschool can't all be measured by a test. Studies show that noncognitive skills learned in preschool, such as cooperation with others, persist into adulthood, she said.
Since 2007, Iowa has offered voluntary preschool to all 4-year-olds regardless of family income. Fifty-five percent of the state's 4-year-olds participate, a quarter of them low income. The program cost about $66.8 million in 2012.In Nebraska, state preschools cost about $21 million last year. Both states serve additional children under the federal Head Start program.
In the Omaha Public Schools, about 1,500 4-year-olds are enrolled in the district's preschool programs, but 3,000 others could be served, according to ReNae Kehrberg, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Kehrberg said children who attend OPS's early childhood education for two years or more test above grade level in reading in third grade.
“It makes such a difference in terms of their future by having that structured, nurturing environment, where they're learning problem-solving skills, decision-making skills. They're doing creative curriculum, which is also academic skills,” she said. “And as a result, they come into kindergarten and we've leveled the playing field.”
Results from the two Educare early learning centers in OPS have been “phenomenal,” Kehrberg said.
Educare Omaha Executive Director Gladys Haynes said she's encouraged by Obama's preschool proposal and by his call for more programs serving even younger children.
Across Nebraska, she said, there is debate over whether the government or the parents should be responsible for nurturing a young child. But more and more there's support for government playing a role in reducing the “opportunity gap” between poor and more affluent children, she said.
“I think we have more and more school leaders, politicians that are understanding it. But it's an ongoing battle yet; we haven't hooked it. But I think we are much closer than we were two or three years ago.”
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