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3 March 2008

Quality Pre-K Education Dependent on Household Income: State's Middle-class Families Hit the Hardest

Bria Ball smiles as her photo is taken at the Jacksonville State University Child Development Center at McClellan. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

By Laura Tutor
Star Features Editor

Reprinted here in its entirety.

Squeezed in the Middle

Barney was gone. He was not coming back. He had been a good cat. He was loved. He would be missed.

Author Judith Viorst's words tell the story of Barney. Her classic book, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, opens the door for children to talk about what happens when we die and how much it hurts to say goodbye to those we love. Her words are simple, the sentences short in a way that a kindergartener could wrap his tongue around them.

And learn.

When teachers discuss early childhood education, they don't point to studies and research there are plenty of politicians and advocates to do that. Instead, they point to words and numbers and lessons that build skills their youngest students will need in life far beyond a classroom.

They mention things like Barney, and children having access to books.

And working together.

And learning how to make decisions and be part of a productive group.

"They are capable of so much, and you have to nurture that from the beginning," said Becki Etheridge, who spent a career in public elementary schools and now has a second one teaching reading and music at Jacksonville State University's Child Development Center.

"You can tell, once they get in the classroom, who has been exposed to the idea of learning, who has had access to the creative materials, who has seen the books, the stories about life.

"It's hard to fill that gap."

Etheridge says she doesn't need four decades of early childhood education research to tell her that.

Among that research, however, emerges a widening valley between the country's wealthiest children and those from middle-income families, said Libby Doggett, one of the country's foremost proponents for expanding enrollment in pre-kindergarten programs.

Doggett says most Americans have become immune to news of a rich-poor learning gap that usually follows those children throughout their lives. However, they aren't as aware that the divide between middle-income households and wealthier families is turning into a chasm. It is deepening faster than the gap between middle-income households and families below the poverty line.

There are children in 200,000 Alabama households with parents working full time who do not have enough money to meet basic expenses, according to Census data reported in "Bridging the Gap: Alabama's Working Families and the Broken Promise of Economic Opportunity."

The report, released in January by the Arise Citizens' Policy Project, points out that those households have an annual income of around $39,900 for a family of four, based on 2005 data. Those are the people affected most sharply by Alabama's drop in median household income from 2001 to 2005. In that time, median household income in Alabama fell 5 percent, from $39,797 to $37,502, when adjusted for inflation.

Parents in that median segment the heart of Alabama's wage-earners make too much money to have their children enrolled in a Head Start preschool program. They make too much to qualify for a state-subsidized child care slot at a center. They don't make enough to pay for the private preschools that have programs with accredited early childhood teachers and structured curricula.

Child care directors in Calhoun County say a program with a curriculum designed to get a child ready for kindergarten costs far more than the $110 to $115 they charge parents per week.

Because child care is so expensive, and the bulk of the job growth in Alabama is in the low-paying sectors of food service, food preparation and retail sales, a large chunk of parents working full time cannot pay those fees. Their children are either in day care centers that have no structured learning or they are shuffled between caregivers also an indication that no structured education is taking place.

"It's unfortunate right now that in this country, whether a child gets quality pre-K or not depends on how much the parents make," Doggett said. "Or where they live. Or where they work, and it's hitting middle-class families the hardest.

"Alabama really is trying to change that."

When the Legislature resumes, Gov. Bob Riley expects its members to start working on Alabama's budget for fiscal 2009. He's asking them to kick $20 million more toward a pre-K program considered one of the best in the country. He said he expects it to be funded and has visited almost a dozen pre-K programs this year to build support for it.

While much has been made of the program's $30 million cost, Riley and its fans around the country say the public has missed the broader message: These programs, when they work, do as much or more to elevate learning among middle-income children than they do children living in poverty, many of whom already have access to pre-school programs through Head Start.

"The ability to have a child come into kindergarten and be ready to read that's critical," Riley said. "We get a return off this faster than we would a manufacturing company. We get a return on every dollar we invest."

Investment is a funny word. For teachers like Etheridge and her director, Patricia Hobbs, it means having books to share with children. That sounds simple, teachers say, but it cannot be underestimated in its power to turn children on to learning.

One preschool teacher recalled a moment a few years back. The family dog of one of her students had died, and the biggest asset to helping that boy was pulling out the dog-eared, much-read copy of The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.

While addressing the death of a pet might not seem integral to learning as it relates to test scores and data, the lesson the preschool class learned that week was invaluable as it related to reading, drawing and passing on the simple gift of compassion.

Hobbs' career in education has taken her from fifth-grade classrooms to the U.S. Department of Education. In that time, early childhood education went from a niche study to the foundation of all learning.

Nothing, Hobbs and Etheridge say, gets children ready to succeed in school like early childhood programs.

Such programs aren't cheap, however. Parents pay about $10,000 a year per child for day care. But it costs more than that to run the programs. If centers charged parents the full cost of day care, even fewer families would be able to afford it. Instead, many make up the difference with grants or money from their sheltering institutions.

JSU has invested heavily in Hobbs' center. Other longtime centers in Calhoun County are run out of big churches that have congregations willing to foot a large portion of the expense and overhead for the programs. It's a model common throughout Alabama.

Even Riley acknowledges that the cost of quality child care is enormous.

Under his program, day care centers, church centers and schools would apply for state-funded grants to run a First Class program. They could then charge parents a maximum of $300 per month per child to attend the program and use its state-licensed curriculum. Grants would help make up the difference in a center's operating expenses.

"You would have that First Class stamp and be guaranteed that the program was good," Riley said. "This will allow centers to hire qualified teachers. It will ensure you don't have more than 18 in a classroom."

The First Class pre-K program is modeled loosely after Georgia's Bright From the Start program, funded with public lottery money and reaching almost 80,000 children. In Alabama, the Governor's Council on Pre-K policy has recommended a slow expansion for First Class. The council also is following the recommendation of Doggett's group, Pre-K Now, in opening the publicly funded program to privately run centers.

The slow start is designed to make sure teachers are trained and accredited, Riley said. The program is also going to be open to private day care providers, who'll get grants to implement it and hire staff. That takes time too much time, according to some who study early childhood education.

Alabama's preschool program may set a national standard for its excellence, but it lags behind in the number and percentage of children it serves, according to "The State of Preschool 2007: State Preschool Yearbook" released Wednesday. The study by the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked all 50 states based on enrollment, quality, curriculum and funding for the 2006-07 school year. Alabama and North Carolina were the only states to meet all 10 of NIEER's benchmarks.

However, Alabama ranked last among the 38 states that provide publicly funded pre-K, because it serves only 2 percent of the state's 4-year-olds. It ranked ninth on the amount of state resources provided.

Riley said expanding First Class will take time, but it caps a multi-pronged approach to education reform. He pairs it with the Alabama Reading Initiative and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative. Without it, the state's education system will never be able to compete with the rest of the country.

"We will grow into it over the next four to five years," he said of the program. "We can't go in and cut the very programs that have been proven to be so successful."

Riley's budget shifts money to pre-K

Gov. Bob Riley's budget for fiscal 2009 calls for a major shift in the Education Trust Fund, the part of Alabama's budget set aside for education-related programs.

Riley wants a $20 million increase in pre-K funding for First Class, the Alabama pre-K initiative ranked as one of the top two in the country. He also wants $10 million each to increase funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.

However, the education fund faces a shortfall of $290 million or $492 million, depending on whether one looks at projections provided by Riley's office or the larger deficit projected by the Legislative Fiscal Office.

While expanding pre-K, Riley's budget would cut two- and four-year colleges and universities by $229 million. Local K-12 school boards would lose $107 million.

Gordon Stone, executive director and lobbyist with the Higher Education Partnership, has said Riley's budget is unfair and, in essence, pits one educational segment against another. University presidents also have decried the cuts, which amount to about 13 percent for their schools.

Pre-K advocates, however, point to a 2007 study by the National Commission on Adult Literacy that says Alabama will be short 100,000 college graduates by 2025 the year when children born in 2008 will be expected to graduate high school. If those children haven't had quality education from pre-school, they won't be able to attend college and meet the demands of the changing economy, according to the study.

Riley said last week that while there is no "organized opposition" to his pre-K budget request, he understands a $30 million pre-K program in lean economic times will make legislators skittish. He expects the program to be funded, and says the Legislature likely will take up the budget when it returns from its spring break.

Not passing the pre-K program increase would scale back education reforms that have been proven to work, Riley said, referring to ARI and AMSTI.

"I'm trying to convince the Legislature of this, that these new programs are as much a priority as anything else," he said. "If we start reducing these programs, then we become our own worst enemy when it comes to educating our children."

About Laura Tutor

Laura Tutor is the features editor for The Star.

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