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When Government Preschool Comes To Town

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Thousands of preschoolers in Alabama will go back to school this year in a variety of settings: faith-based, federally-funded, full-time, part-time, or private. But the state’s diverse preschool market is dwindling, and if legislators continue to support bigger federally funded programs, those choices will dry up.

Faith-based providers are losing students to the ever-expanding First Class program, Alabama’s state and federally-funded preschool. Right now, about one in five of Alabama four-year-olds attend government-funded preschool.

Federal dollars already fund preschool for nearly 20,000 underprivileged children in the state through Head Start. Three times as many four-year-olds—15 percent of the state’s population—are enrolled in the Head Start as are enrolled in First Class, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, an advocacy group. First Class funding casts a net over preschool programs, supporting those that agree to restrictive government regulations. An extensive list of programs and classroom regulations dictate everything from the length of the school day (6.5 hours) to the number of students per classroom (16, with mid-year growth to 18 allowed). Even the physical environment of state-funded preschools— displays, furniture, materials—must meet specific requirements, and the daily classroom schedule must be approved by the Alabama Office of School Readiness.

The intent of the regulations, OSR says, is to ensure quality. A 2013 study published in the respected journal Science found that quality rating systems for early childhood care centers in most states, including Alabama, do nothing to actually improve preschool quality.

A Bias Against Religious Institutions

Tight restrictions on any expression of religion in participating preschools have re-routed the majority of government funding to subsidize secular institutions. Alabama’s preschool, like Head Start and most state preschool programs, works on essentially a voucher system, where kids who qualify can take their government funds to either government or non-government institutions—as long as the institutions jump through government hoops first.

Approximately 300 preschools are enlisted in the program; only approximately seven of those are faith-based, said J. Robin Mears, executive director of Alabama Christian Education Association. Basically, religious preschools must give up their basic mission to comply with state regulations, he said.

First Class has gained gradual foothold in the state, because it is an annual line-item in the state budget and advocates ask for more money every year.

“The legislature added around $10 million this year, same as they did last year,” Mears said. “The debate to adjust the budget is very clumsy and muddy, so even legislators who may not like it or oppose it won’t vote against $10 million. It’s a very manipulative process.”

Unthinking Acceptance

Touted everywhere as an essential part of long-term education success, preschool has become a definite and evident part of the nation’s consciousness. Parents may not understand the implications of what appears to be the spread of quality, free programs. But when government-funded programs come to town, their “free” pricetag and accompanying restrictions can drive out diversity and choice for families.

Joy Berish, teacher at a faith-based Alabama preschool and mother of two, said her school has such wide appeal to parents because of its flexible attendance options.

“[Government subsidized preschool] does away with choice,” Mears said. “There are still those parents who don’t want their little child in class from 8 to 3:30 every day.”

Research: Preschool Essentially Wastes Money

Preschool institutions have not been found to advance a child’s learning long-term, according to the best studies available. Even popular pre-K advocates, such as W. Steven Barnett of Rutgers University, have found that any evident academic advancement of preschool attendees fades out, typically by the second grade. But state and federal lawmakers continue to funnel increasing funds in that direction regardless.

Multiple organizations in the state have studied the topic of federal and state-based preschool programs and expressed opposition. Alongside the ACEA, Eagle Forum and the Alabama Policy Institute have criticized mandating preschool state and nationwide. It’s an excessive amount of money and effort and not even proven to increase graduation rates, Mears said.

“How about, instead of ‘universal for all,’ ‘options for all,’” said Vicki Alger, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

Research by the Alabama Policy Institute has found that the best solution to low-academic achievement is, “not to increase government intrusion into child rearing at all but rather to increase meaningful parental participation in the upbringing and education of children.”

And yet state policymakers continue to vote for a limiting, state-wide early education structure.

“Alabama could do a model program like Arizona’s Education Savings Account, and I would recommend an Early Education Savings Account,” Alger said. “If the state itself wants to start a program…put the funding into parents’ hands.”

With so many organizations trying to improve school preparation programs, early education and childcare tax credits would be another great model, Alger said.

“The challenge is for policymakers to ensure that there are an array of options,” Alger said. “There is no one-size-fits-all in [early learning]; the ones who know best how programs are going to work in communities and cities are Alabamans.”