Preschool has traditionally been thought of as an excellent way to socialize children, get them to adjust to being away from home, and prepare them for the challenges of kindergarten and grade school. While this has certainly proved true, researchers are discovering that it can also be much more. A study by the National Research Council found that the first five years of a child’s life are “a time of enormous growth of linguistic, conceptual, and social competence.” In other words, preschool-aged children are not only more capable of learning than they are given credit for, but what they learn is integral in the way they will learn later on in life. Not only does this mean that preschools are changing their programs to further challenge and develop preschoolers; it also means that many parents and educators are pushing for the federal and state governments to fund a voluntary, universal preschool program. Recent successes in states like Illinois may ensure that every child can be prepared socially and cognitively for the world ahead.
The United States has primarily considered early education to be an expense that should be paid by families. Because of this, there is a vast discrepancy in preschool enrollment between families that earn $50,000 a year or more and families that earn less. Low-income families are eligible for preschool funding through government programs like Head Start, but according to the Committee for Economic Development (CED), these programs only have enough funding to assist 60 percent of eligible 3-and 4-year-olds. Middle class families face the precarious position of neither being able to afford high-quality preschool nor qualifying for government funding. Constituents in states across the nation are lobbying for universal access to preschool, and have succeeded to some degree in states like Oklahoma, Florida and Georgia. In 2006, Illinois legislators agreed to institute Governor Rod Blagojevich’s Preschool for All plan, making it the first state to offer voluntary preschool to all 3-and 4-year olds. The law will also help to standardize the quality and accountability of schools, assuring that no matter where a child goes to preschool, they will be assured a certain level of education.
In Glenview, the Wesley Child Care Center has been providing child care and early education for many area families since 1972. Executive Director Ellen Fagerburg attributes the center’s success and longevity to its highly-qualified, experienced staff and their low child-teacher ratio. In addition, the non-sectarian organization has thrived by keeping a finger on “the pulse of the community’s needs,” working with local organizations and school districts to provide children the best transition possible to grade school. Wesley is an example of a preschool that has attempted to do since its inception what the Preschool for All plan will require of all early education centers. The school, formed by concerned citizens, already offers $75,000 a year in scholarships to help subsidize preschool for families who cannot afford it. Fagerburg notes that while Wesley has many students who afford their tuition through government subsidies and many students whose families are able to afford full tuition, a large number of students come from middle class families who need economic assistance to afford tuition but cannot receive it from the government. That is where the privately-raised scholarship money is a godsend. The school does much of the fundraising, and generous donations from organizations such as the United Way are of great help. The Preschool for All plan will likely offer additional funds to allow students to attend Wesley.
The effects of having universal access to early education are myriad. While there is great joy to be found in education for education’s sake, the tangible benefits are striking as well. According to the Brookings Institute, if a program similar to Illinois’ is executed on a national level, the better-educated, more adaptable populace of the future could add $2 trillion to the annual U.S. GDP by 2080. A study at the University of Wisconsin found that for every dollar spent on early education, seven dollars are saved in public expenditures on truancy and criminal justice. The monetary advantage can be personal as well as public. Children who attend preschool gain an extra $25,000 over their lifetime, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. The evidence is clear that preschool enriches children and the nation in more ways than one, and proponents of universal programs believe that the initial cost is money well spent.
However, universal preschool has its detractors as well. The primary criticism of government funded early education is the cost. Illinois’ Preschool for All program will cost state taxpayers an extra $45 per year for the first three years. Annual public expenditures on preschool are $25 billion, and the CED conservatively estimates that number would have to at least double in order to offer universal education throughout the country. Critics of big government don’t believe that it is the government’s responsibility to provide these services, arguing for privatization. Many private schools are concerned with these policies as well, for fear of an economic threat. These opponents have been enough thus far to keep universal programs out of the majority of U.S. states.
The Wesley Child Care Center’s quality-certified, time-tested brand of early education has served as an important foundation for students entering District 34. In fact, by working in tandem with the school district in forming curriculum for preschool and elementary summer programs, the school ensures that its students will be prepared as they enter over a decade of learning. Ellen Fagerburg calls the activities held at the center to be “developmentally appropriate true play,” meaning that the guided activity at the center is both fun and stimulating. Wesley is also an innovator in accountability, being one of the first preschools to be certified by NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). As part of PFA, every early education institution will be required to have some sort of accreditation, but those standards are yet unknown. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the Wesley Child Care Center, the great advantages they offer are not affordable for everyone. Will Illinois’ Universal Preschool plan open the doors to quality education for all, or will it water down the existing resources and drain taxpayers’ wallets? Time will soon tell.