“Privatizing” Pre-K Is About More than Saving Money

It was with no small measure of alarm that we learned this week of a proposal in the North Carolina legislature to completely privatize pre-K classrooms by the summer of 2013. It’s part of a draft report that calls for pre-K to be the exclusive domain of child care centers and to be removed from the public schools that currently serve about half the state’s preschoolers. It also would decrease eligibility from an annual family income of about $50,000 to $22,000— for all practical purposes, the poverty line.

If passed, this legislation will erase years of progress that made North Carolina one of the premiere states for delivering quality preschool education. In the process, it will relegate the children most at risk of school failure to programs that will more closely resemble babysitting than anything that enables children to start school ready to learn.  Although it seems that the North Carolina legislature may back away from some aspects of the proposal, the proposal’s core principles are likely far from dead.

For anyone wondering how policy leaders could consider consigning the state’s disadvantaged kids to such a poor start in life, this should serve as a wake-up call. They should realize that those who are pushing to eviscerate high-quality state pre-K are not the least bit interested in the welfare of the children. Rather, they are pursuing a different agenda, seeking instead to separate preschool from public education. Rayne Brown, the co-chairwoman of the committee that came up with this plan told the Winston-Salem Journal she thinks privatization would be a “great thing to do and that it would help shrink government.”

This is not just more of the public employee/teacher union bashing that has been popular of late.  It is part of strategy to deny rights and escape responsibilities that adhere to public education through state constitutions.  By shifting preschool to child care and out of education, prohibitions against funding religious education are eluded and children’s rights to an effective education are made irrelevant. Make no mistake, this is a carefully crafted legal strategy spreading across the states wherever legislators fear that courts might force them to offer young children a real (and more costly) education or interfere with the legislature’s desire to funnel public funds to the religious and business institutions of their choice.

To my mind, children’s advocates who now almost uniformly describe preschool programs as “early learning” rather than “education” and support moving administration of early childhood programs out of state education departments are playing right into the hands of their opponents.  As children’s advocates care deeply about the quality of education and closing the achievement gap, they will find the consequences tragic.  The legal foundations of public education make it uniquely suited to bringing all sectors—including Head Start and faith-based organizations—into comprehensive state systems with uniformly high quality standards and adequate funding.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

12 Responses to “Privatizing” Pre-K Is About More than Saving Money

  1. Ted says:

    To suggest that privatization of pre-k is, in fact, dooming the future success of children is insulting. Further insult is to suggest that all child care facilities are mearly engaged in “babysitting”. The quality standards of many private pre-school programs are far superior to those of public schools. That argument could be extended to private schools. If they are tuition based private schools, surely it must only be in existance for the purposes of profit? A very narrowminded and misguided article, in my opinion.

    • Lee-Mark says:

      Thanks for the opinion; however, Ted you did not even name one successful pre-k school. Do you have any peer-reviewed studies that support your stance? Opinion without facts is still opinion.

  2. Steve says:

    Ted, you misinterpreted my email if you think I in any way indicated that private preschool and child care programs can not be high quality. Of course, private programs can be of high quality and some are truly excellent. However, the initiatives I am talking about do not support high quality private programs. Florida gives parents less than $2500 per child–that won’t get poor children into an excellent private program. In North Carolina, it seems that the purpose of the privatization proposal was to reduce access and spending and elude standards and constitutional obligations. We don’t have national data on quality, but statewide studies in California found that very few private programs provided good experiences for young children, and that average quality in private schools and child care was substantially below that in Head Start and public schools. Even families with above average incomes only succeeded in getting a good program about 20% of the time. Walter Gilliam’s work on quality in Connecticut had similar findings some time ago, if I remember correctly.

  3. The state is passing the buck for pre-K, but I don’t think it’s for some evil purpose. Being cash-strapped is a fact now. Programs and people are cut at massive scale. We need the private sector to get in this game, because the public sector doesn’t have the money.

    A good private preschool is 500-1000k a month, at least. The Florida subsidy is babysitting cash.

    BTW, personal experience tells me Head Starts aren’t so great in California. I’d like to see your study that says otherwise.

    We need solutions that properly value Pre-K and Readiness programs, and utilize the private sector as a partner.

    • Karen Bernard says:

      The public sector would have the money if the private sector stopped the current nonsensical course of making everything about what “I” can do as opposed to what “we” can do. The public sector is not an evil arm of government, but the combined, educated, and efficient efforts of the populace. In New Jersey, despite the corporations-first rhetoric coming out of our capital, we have developed an exemplary state-funded preK education program. And It improves steadily with the “boots-on-the-ground” support of high-quality, public early childhood experts, who work titrelessly to make quality a universal reality. It needs to be extended to all 3 and 4 year olds, regardless of family income. This is about America’s future, not politics, not Johnny-come-lately private sector “early learning” businesses. We have had our growing pains experience in NJ with that, too, and extensive personal evidence indicates that a business person rarely equals an early childhood educator, and the children suffer because of it.

  4. Steve says:

    As with every sector, there are high performers and low performers in Head Start (though the bottom end doesn’t get as low as the private sector). See this excellent study by Lynn Karoly and colleagues at Rand for data on Head Start quality in CA
    http://www.rand.org/labor/projects/ca_preschool.html

  5. Cindy Lamy says:

    Two thoughts: 1) that, amazingly, there are still folks in positions of policy power that have not truly internalized the critical importance of high quality early education, for those children and for the broader society; and 2) that even successful programs focused on lower income children and families, programs with well-known benefits that exceed costs, require vigilant protection. C

  6. Pat Bryant says:

    I am a public school official who is working in a state-funded early childhood program where the public schools and private childcare centers partner to educate preschoolers. I think the model is a great one and is evidenced by the increased program quality results taken over the years. I can surely see the doom that might lurk once the preschool education baton is passed over totally to childcare and taken from the teaming structure and compliance of the department of education. While I understand there is a shortage of funding, the decision as to where to spend the available dollar should be the prevailing question. Surely high-quality preschool is worth the investment!

  7. Privatization of Pre-K will continue to cost this nation more and more. What Rayne Brown needs to learn is that she will be responsible for turning a nation of young children away from early learning opportunities. What this nation needs to do is help society this way. With quality family centers that provide counseling, responsive parenting education, and high-quality learning curriculums for our youngest children. Family centers like these would coordinate and hence, coalesce the transition of early childhood’s education and health priorities. All because she wants to “shrink government”? How dare these adults with greedy agendas.

  8. Steve says:

    Its great to have some many wonderful posts. New Jersey’s mixed delivery system has been featured on national television news, but few people know about its success and even fewer understand the value of expanding to serve all of New Jersey’s children. We need to figure out how to better inform the public and energize legislative champions who will prioritize investments in our future over political payoffs to various constituencies. Stay tuned for more on this when the 2012 Preschool Yearbook comes out next month, America took a big step backwards last year.

  9. Roger Gilroy says:

    Education is business for most in the preschool field and many owners resent paying taxes to support public schools that take children away from the independently operated preschools.

    Think about it. There has to be a way to make a profit or there will be far fewer preschools. I own one and our children soar into kindergarten.

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