What is a preschool? In the state of Washington, it can mean any gathering of children too young for kindergarten. But when preschool is touted as one of the most effective means for upward mobility in society, there is a specific definition in mind. Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to pin that down, because at some point – like when the state has money again – she wants to embark on a long-term effort to enroll 3- and 4-year-old students in high-quality preschools. It’s a worthy goal, but it does sow confusion.
For one thing, most day care centers would not be eligible for state funding. Teacher and curriculum standards are not high enough. In other states, this has triggered opposition. Washington state must hold firm, because the long-term studies on the effectiveness of early learning demonstrate that the instructional standards must be as high as they are for other grades. A specific curriculum that combines learning and playing has to be followed. Teachers must know how to teach it.
The state will have limited dollars, so it must ensure that only high-quality preschools are funded. This, in turn, will allow parents to make more informed choices on where to send their children.
The state oversees 7,600 licensed child care facilities, but it imposes no educational standards on them. Furthermore, centers that are open four hours a day or less don’t require licensing. Under Gregoire’s proposal, those that wanted to be considered preschools would have to meet state education standards.
Actual dollars wouldn’t start flowing to preschools until 2013. Assistance for families would be determined on a sliding scale, with children of low-income households getting larger subsidies. Two bills have already been introduced in Olympia. This effort could also help with the state’s Race to the Top application. The feds want to reward states that are beefing up education standards.
Preschools are widely accepted as effective tools in closing the achievement gap between children of different backgrounds. They lower societal costs for crime, prisons and unemployment. They increase the number of productive citizens. But none of that is true if high quality isn’t required.
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