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July 06, 2009

Universal Means a Kid Can Go if They Want To

Recently I heard Checker Finn compare the national pre-k system to the higher education structure in a panel discussion on universal preschool. His comment brought something new to the table -- kids! It was great to see them at the forefront of the discussion (rather than Finn's usual ideology).

It's an interesting concept that really made me think twice about how I understand the phrase "universal pre-k." Higher eduction is made up of a system of public, private, technical, and community colleges. It is subsidized by the state, but not provided exclusively by the state. It is beneficial to the community and the state, but still a burden on the tax payer. Not everyone goes to college. It can actually be better for some people, interested in trades or technical professions, not to go to college.

While many parents hope their child will pursue a college degree, sometimes it's not a good fit. Policymakers would never consider forcing people to go to college, just like most would never consider forcing a child to go to pre-k. Many kids go to college and don't get much out of it. Some attend and find their life calling there, hit the job market ready, only to be disappointed by the reality of the economy. Even though there's not a universal measure for college outcomes, it's safe to say that all college students get something out of their experience. We don't question the validity of going - it's part of our national education system and has provided the driving force of our economy for a long time. But the truth is, every kid who attends pre-k gets something out of that experience, too.

As it stands, I consider us to have a college-for-all system. It is not perfect and may not be entirely equitable, but technology and the Internet are changing that. There are college students all over the country who attend universities all over the world through online and face-to-face classes. 

Similarly, there are pre-kindergarten programs based in other states that operate all over the country. The effectiveness of these programs varies greatly from one community -- or even one center to another. But the best of the pre-k classrooms seem to be those that are either entirely private and expensive or entirely public and focused on outcomes. So how do we get all children access to these kinds of preschools?

Maybe we could get to a national pre-k system if we broaden our definition of what universal means. In the college system, universal means a kid can go if they want to. They may need to get loans and pay them back, find grants, or go to community college for a couple of years, but most of the time, if you want to go, you can. It isn't the same way with pre-k. In states with targeted pre-k programs, your child can go if your family is poor and the government will pay, or, if you can afford private pre-k. What about a community college option for pre-k? What if we had a system where kids could go and the government would pay for some of the costs?

I guess what I'm saying is, we know pre-k works. The question is not whether we should or shouldn't make it available to all kids, but how can we make it available to all kids. How many different models of effective pre-k systems are there? Have we found them all yet?


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