Research and the Public Prekindergarten Debate

Early learning has few detractors, but publicly supported prekindergarten has many. Among those concerned are early care and education providers themselves. Private-for-profit and nonprofit centers, faith-based programs, family child care homes, and Head Start fear losing their four-year-olds to “free” prekindergarten programs in public schools.

That’s why many states let private providers help operate prekindergarten programs. Private providers serve most children in Georgia’s universal preschool program and Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program. New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program is available to all three- and four-year-olds in the state’s poorest school districts; private centers and Head Start agencies contract with local school boards to serve two thirds of the children.

Many early care and education advocates have a different objection—that prekindergarten will be staffed by public school teachers with no background in early childhood education. But a recent AIR study of a publicly supported transitional kindergarten program serving four-year-olds in California found that 95 percent of the teachers had previously taught preschool, kindergarten, or first grade. Two thirds had training in social and emotional development.

Some early education advocates also worry that most publicly supported preschool programs operate too few hours a day, putting working parents in a bind. AIR’s study found that more than half of the school districts offer full school-day transitional kindergarten programs, though fewer large districts do. New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program—which also offers wraparound services—and Georgia’s universal preschool program are open at least six hours a day, 180 days per year. Given proper standards and funding, quality prekindergarten programs can be provided in a variety of settings. And careful planning can help states defuse some of the opposition to prekindergarten and better meet the needs of young children and their families.

This blog is a response to Who Opposes Early Learning by the National Journal (login required).

Image of Susan Muenchow
Principal Researcher