New report examines universal pre-kindergarten program

A new report published by the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany examines universal pre-kindergarten programs in Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont.

A growing body of evidence has shown pre-K programs have a positive effect on academic, behavioral, career, and life outcomes. But the report finds New York state enrollment is far from universal.

The research completed by interns with the Institute’s Center for Law & Policy Solutions assessed the accessibility, quality, funding, and impacts of the state-level programs.

To learn more about the report’s findings, WAMC’s Lucas Willard spoke with Dr. Laura Rabinow, the Rockefeller Institute’s Deputy Director of Research.

What the report looks at are, A, what these programs look like. What are their, kind of, rules, should we say? What is the student to teacher ratio? What are the qualifications for instructors? Those types of things. Also, how it is administered, sometimes through a voucher program. For example, Vermont does this two ways. Districts provide 10 hours a week, 35 weeks a year minimum of programming for preschool students. But families can also choose to take a voucher that equals 10 hours a week, 35 weeks a year to a private program.

Each state administers this a little differently, each has some different bounds around who can or cannot be a provider, or requirements for districts to take these things up. And they play out with different impacts.

But I will say that we have this large body of research that pre-exists these programs and has happened alongside these programs that already demonstrates a broadly positive if uneven impact. And the ways in which the individual state universal pre-K programs have been measured varies. And so, comparing them isn’t always like comparing apples to apples, right? We have to take each one a bit individually. They’ve all also started at different points in time.

We have Oklahoma being the first in 1998, I believe. And then we have Florida, in 2005, and then Vermont in 2014. And so, the depth of the literature on each of those is different, as well.

And Vermont has had that universal pre-K program for the shortest amount of time. And although there may not be a ton of data going back, compared to especially something that happened in the 90s, are there signs or any preliminary evidence that shows the impacts of Vermont’s program at this time, almost 10 years out?

Yeah, so the state had commissioned a report on Vermont’s program that has occurred. And you can look at some, I would say nascent test scores for younger students, because they have to work their way not just through the program, but then up to third grade, at least, to really see those impacts. And then again, when we look at that longer history of research, right, we noted, sometimes we see a fade out, and then we see its persistence over time.

So there’s enough to say that there seems to be a positive if still modest impact, but it’s not yet definitive, because we don’t really have that much time to look at it across. It seems to be that at least when parents were surveyed, they found the program to be very accessible, that seems to play out in terms of the numbers of students or percentage of students that are enrolled. Vermont serves the highest percentage of students in their state universal program. It’s 76% of four-year-olds, 59% of three-year-olds, which is huge, because most programs don’t provide for three-year-olds. Or if they do, it’s a fairly small percentage. We’re talking like, maybe 5%.

I’m sure a lot of this comes down to money too, especially when comparing the different states that have different models. Does the study look at how money is used in these states? And has that been a hindering factor in establishing pre-K programs across the country?

I couldn’t say if it’s hindering or not, based on this research, what I can say is that there are very different levels of state funding, in particular, for these programs. So, Vermont is, I believe, the highest at $7,900 a student. So you can see that’s a really big range. Now, that doesn’t take into account local funding or federal funding, which are really important parts of our preschool funding package. Florida, unfortunately, doesn’t report that total funding and so you can’t compare them equivalently.

So how about states, like New York, which call it universal pre-K, but it’s really not. So, how is that different than, say, what Vermont is doing across the border?

Right. So, we provide funding to any district that wants to implement a pre-K program, but we don’t require that all districts implement a program. So, we serve a rather large number of students already. In fact, New York serves more than most other states, even without having a quote unquote, universal pre-K program by our definition, right. So it serves about 120,000 students. There’s only I believe, California, Florida and maybe Texas that have more than that. Florida’s at about 166,000, I believe, for comparison, and Florida serves far larger than the other two programs that we’re talking about. Vermont is not even 10,000 students, I believe. So really orders of magnitude difference here.

I think an important point as New York looks towards expanding its universal program to be a, by this definition universal program, is to think about the workforce needs for teachers that would be required to go across all districts, the maintenance of the kind of quality indicators that lead to better outcomes, like low student-to-teacher ratio, higher certifications for teachers, those kinds of things, right? So, there’s a challenge and how to maintain that as you grow a program. There’s also a challenge in a larger scale in a different state. And then there are challenges, I think, with whether or not a district chooses to implement a program and whether or not they have the right incentive, structure, support, etc.

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