Moving Towards Universal Pre-k in Washington, D.C.
Last month, the District of Columbia Council took an important step towards making universal pre-k a reality in the District by passing Pre-Kindergarten Expansion and Enhancement Act. This new, comprehensive legislation seeks to provide pre-k to every 3- and 4- year old in the District whose parents want it by 2014. The legislation is good news for kids and parents in the District of Columbia, but it's just the first step. Now the District faces the even greater challenge of building a high-quality District-wide pre-k system out of the current network of disparate programs providing early education and care in the nation's capital.
Too often when it comes to education, Washington, D.C., finds itself at the bottom of the pack, behind all of the 50 states. But when it comes to early education, the District of Columbia has long been a leader in providing publicly funded pre-k to its children. The District enrolls a higher percentage of its 3-year-olds in publicly funded pre-k than any state in the country, and a higher percentage of 4-year olds than all but three states (Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia). But despite relatively high enrollments, the advocacy group Pre-K for All estimates that at least 2,000 children whose parents want to enroll them have no access pre-k programs. With 61 percent who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a risk factor for poor school achievement, there's a real need for high-quality pre-k to prevent children from falling behind before they even start school. Moreover, D.C. delivers pre-k through a patchwork of programs operated by the District of Columbia Public Schools, charter public schools, Head Start, community-based childcare, and the Department of Recreation, and quality varies dramatically across programs, so even many children enrolled in pre-k are not getting the full support they need to be ready to learn in kindergarten.
The new law seeks to expand pre-k access in the District by adding an additional 125 new, high-quality pre-k classrooms by 2014-serving an additional 15 percent of unserved children each year. At the same time, the law seeks to improve the quality of existing pre-k programs, setting a maximum teacher-student ratio (1to 8 for children age 3 and under, 1 to 10 for 4-year olds) and requiring all teachers to have a bachelor's degree by 2017. The law also requires the District's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to establish guidelines relating to facilities improvement, parent involvement, and curriculum for pre-k programs by September 1. To help pre-k programs achieve the new standards, the legislation authorizes technical assistance grants, as well as an incentive grant program used to recruit high-quality college graduates to work in Washington, D.C.'s pre-k classrooms.
There's a lot to like about this plan. For one, it takes a systemic approach, seeking to improve quality across all sectors providing publicly funded pre-k in the District, rather than simply tacking an additional program atop the existing patchwork. Second, the law focuses on quantity and quality, to ensure that the investment in increasing pre-k enrollments produces real results. Third, the law allows for a diversity of pre-k providers, including the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), public charter schools, and community-based organizations, including Head Start. This is important to provide parents a choice, and also to foster innovative teaching approaches. Fourth, the program's funding, which comes through the District's uniform per-pupil funding formula, in the same way that DCPS and charter schools receive funding, is much more stable than pre-k funding streams in many states, and should help guard pre-k from the perennial budget chopping block. Fifth, the law stresses accountability, mandating an annual baseline quality assessment and program capacity audit to gage how universal pre-k is progressing. Finally, the law emphasizes that D.C.'s new investment in pre-k is educational, rather than just childcare, by moving oversight of the program from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. The legislation also promoted PK-3 alignment by explicitly requiring OSSE to ensure that standards and teaching practices in the pre-k program are aligned with those for kindergarten through third grade.
As is the case with any complex piece of legislation, this one leaves many questions - especially concerning quality - for OSSE to answer in the coming months. Here are a few things to keep an eye out for:
Alignment - This new legislation gave OSSE responsibility to oversee pre-k programs across an incredibly diverse array of school- and community-based providers. And D.C.'s public education system, where more than one-in-four children attend charter schools, is also incredibly diverse. Aligning PK-3 curricula and teaching practices across such a range of providers, while also respecting their diversity, will be incredibly difficult-but it is doable. OSSE will need to work closely with DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Public Charter School Board, which oversees public charter schools, to develop and implement a PK-3 alignment plan that will straddle pre-k and elementary school and assure that learning continues uninterrupted during these years, while also preserving the individuality of diverse providers.
Assistance Grants / Professional Development - With all programs under a new pre-k umbrella, funding for quality improvement initiatives will come from a single source, the OSSE. Community-based providers and charter schools have expressed concern that this may limit their ability to develop unique curricula and contract with outside organizations for assistance. While the law does not specify exactly how these grants should be used, the criteria used to evaluate grant proposals should respect the diversity of D.C.'s students and pre-k providers, ensure providers have the flexibility to obtain quality services that meet their unique needs, and support innovation and customization while ensuring quality.
Community-Based Organizations - The law sets a target for 25 percent of programs to be operated by community-based organizations (CBOs). This is a completely arbitrary number (it was set as high as 50 percent in an initial draft) that may not match the actual capacity of community-based providers, or the types of pre-k programs that District parents want. The District needs to reconsider this number regularly to make sure it is realistic in the context of D.C.'s pre-k market.
Monitoring - The law calls for two annual assessments, a capacity audit and a baseline quality assessment. These two accountability mechanisms must be both rigorous and comprehensive, including site visits, student progress assessments, and, eventually evidence from longitudinal data systems OSSE is developing to monitor students' progress from pre-k through high school. At the same time, the District needs to make sure that penalties for failing to meet requirements do not unnecessarily restrict the diversity of pre-k providers or weed out programs that otherwise have great potential.
D.C.'s recent universal pre-k investment has tremendous potential and the increased access and quality it provides will benefit thousands of children. This legislation is also an important complement to DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee's efforts to radically improve the D.C. school system. Rhee's job is an incredibly tough one, but it will be easier if children enter DCPS with a strong academic base to build on. Now let's make sure the new pre-k programs actually build that base.