How is preschool for all like a snowball fight?

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, published under Creative Commons license

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, published under Creative Commons license

What if success at school was like a snowball fight? The kids with thin, raggedy mittens or no mittens at all are at a distinct disadvantage. They’ll be much better able to compete on an equal basis if they have good mittens, so let’s give all kids the same warm, water-repellent mittens.

The mittens-for-all approach seems a lot like Governor Dayton’s proposals for universal preschool, aiming to help all kids equally. Writing in the Star Tribune, Lori Sturdevant summarizes the governor’s proposals as “$106 million for the 2016-17 school year in matching money to encourage school districts to start free pre-K programs for all of the state’s 4-year-olds … [and] $55.5 million over two years in new funding for Head Start, literacy by third grade, child care subsidies, and NAZ itself — plus $100 million for child care tax credits for working families.” She accurately characterizes Dayton’s proposals as “the best gubernatorial budget for little learners ever seen in St. Paul.”

Even so, the governor’s proposal falls short. Preschool for all is a solution that emphasizes equality. Equality is not the same as equity. Equity requires bringing all kids to the same starting point, or at least trying to. That means more help for those who are disadvantaged.

As economist Art Rolnick critiques the governor’s proposal, it fails to target at-risk children, instead subsidizing “all children (families at all income levels), generating little return for a large portion of that investment.”

Yes, all children could benefit from preschool, but low-income and at-risk children have greater needs than middle-income students. Low-income need targeted, intensive support so that they can start school on a closer-to-equal footing. Preschool is part of the answer, but if public funds flow mainly to preschool-for-all, then there’s not enough money for targeted help.

A truly equal footing requires more than pre-school. Low-income families also need support through programs such as the Nurse Family Partnership visits, a program which has demonstrated success in longitudinal studies from 1977 onward. Low-income families also need child-care subsidies, so that the parents can hold jobs or can attend school to gain the skills they will need to get jobs. Unless the whole family gets help and support, low-income kids will not be on an equal footing on the first day of school.

Preschool for all is not enough to help disadvantaged catch up. Let’s go back to the snowball fight. Preschool for all is like giving all the kids the same warm, water-repellent mittens. That sounds like a good way to give them an equal start. The trouble is that the same kids who start out with raggedy mittens or no mittens at all need more than mittens. They also need warm coats and boots and hats, and even a warm breakfast to start the day.

Giving all the kids free mittens sounds like a good idea, and it would help the kids with freezing fingers. Giving all kids equal access to preschool would also help. It’s just not enough, and not the targeted help that low-income kids (and families) need to even the odds.

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