Thursday, May 4, 2006 04:36 am
A better approach
Preschool programs must emphasize flexibility rather than a one-size-fits-all approach
A statewide universal preschool program appears ready for passage. However, the precise shape the program will take remains unarticulated. Those most effusive in their praise for “Preschool for All” have remained mum when asked to expand on the narrow campaign rhetoric that has thus far served as the sole information the administration has been willing to provide the people of Illinois. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has proclaimed, “We know preschool works.” However, the Illinois Early Learning Project, funded by the State Board of Education, is unwilling to be so bold. The sole source referenced by the project’s Web site is the American School Board Journal article “Is Early Childhood Education Working? It Depends What Study You Read.” The two-page article simply states that when it comes to what works in early childhood education, the jury is still out. State-sponsored (as well as universal) preschool programs share a checkered past. Nearly every approach to early-childhood education has, at some point, experienced serious and unforeseen setbacks. Positive results simply have not followed from static expectations. Illinois, however, need not follow this pattern. A dynamic and visionary approach is available to our elected officials. Illinois can either underinvest in a heavy-handed, suspect endeavor, or we can invest in families and markets. If preschool is going to truly be “Preschool for All,” it must be for all children, all families, all communities, and all educators — public and private. The governor has thrust upon the General Assembly a nearly unbeatable, albeit extremely ambiguous, proposal. The proposed legislation’s lack of specificity, however, can be made into its strength. The legislation, in its current form, does not preclude a cooperative, cross-community approach to early-childhood education. Now the opportunity remains for the Legislature — and not the governor — to craft a flexible, responsive preschool program. Florida grappled with the dilemma now faced by Illinois. The state government answered the call for state-sponsored, and eventually universal, preschool. Equally unavailable in Florida, though, were the data that could in some manner point the way to a perfect solution. The General Assembly and educators alike are savvy enough to know that a perfect solution does not exist. Such is the trial-and-error nature of child-rearing. The universal preschool programs longest under way, those in Georgia, Oklahoma, and New York, have borne positive results — if any at all — at a rate far slower than their originators thought probable or necessary. Theirs have been single-tiered, static approaches to preschool. Florida, taking valuable lessons from other states with regard to the shortfalls of a simplistic approach to early-childhood education, has developed an approach that acknowledges the flexible, varied approach that parents and educators must take with children. Rather than establish (or expand existing) public preschool programs, to supplant similar services already provided by the private sector, Florida paid credence to educators within the state who had for years provided quality prekindergarten education; the state has since provided grants to families who wish to send their children to qualified preschools — be they public or private. David Lawrence was a leading proponent of universal preschool in Florida. He has, since the inception of Florida’s universal preschool program, advised others who have taken up the cause of universal early-childhood education.“ Parents ought to be able to decide if their child should be in pre-K, and where. Settings ought to be private and public,” he said, addressing the National Governors Association. “Just imagine the capital-dollars burden using only public-school settings. Moreover, using nonpublic settings furnishes a splendid spur to improving the quality of child care. Surely no tax dollars ought to be spent on poor-quality settings; such environments will never lead to gains for children.” Unlike a one-size-fits-all program, this approach maximizes flexibility. Parents, counselors, and preschool administrators can better fit the needs of the individual child and his or her home circumstances. Although universal preschool proponents may act boldly, they must also tread lightly. One cannot impress too heavily on the governor, the General Assembly, and the voting public the importance of considering a dynamic approach to universal early-childhood education. A single statewide program may provide a child with an option of attending preschool. However, it is only through a variety of options that Illinois’ children will genuinely enjoy the opportunity to partake in quality preschool.