In the run-up to Californians voting on Prop 82 (which would create free access to pre-school education to all children in California, paid for with a tax on the wealthiest residents) in June, people are looking to Georgia, which instituted a universal preschool program in 1995. The LA Times (registration required, I think) wrote about Georgia's program on Sunday.
It's a tough issue, to be sure. In California, there have been prominent conservative and liberal politicians and interest groups coming down on both sides of this issue...there is no clear political division. It involves not just gathering more public funds (through a tax hike in California or by appropriating other public funds like Georgia is doing by using State Lottery proceeds), but also having the debate over whether those funds are most wisely spent on introducing a new program or spending more to improve primary and secondary education.
The situation in Georgia raises some interesting questions. Children in the program have shown academic gains through 1st grade, but after that, studies have shown the gains start to fade. Results on reading tests have shown Georgia's 4th graders not comparing so well to the rest of the country.
What happens? Universal Preschool advocates (and I consider myself one, although how it is implented is a major concern) would argue that the fall-off is due to problems at the elementary school level which need to be addressed. Those who caution about spending public funds on Universal Preschool would argue that those gains don't stick, and even if that is due to poor elementary school administration, shouldn't we spend the limited amount of public funds we are able to generate for education on strengthening the elementary schools?
My feeling is that all states should at least be funding free pre-school for at-risk children (low income families and children with learning disabilities), while we continue to research the benefits of true universal preschool. If the electorate is willing to fund Universal Preschool, absolutely, but I think people have to understand that funding Universal Preschool is not the magic pill to solving education problems, and that it doesn't change the need to address problems in primary and secondary education.
The biggest shame with the program in Georgia is that researchers didn't follow any of the initial participants (who are now high school freshmen) past the third grade, so they only have data on how universal preschool affected these students up to that point. Unbelievable really. It's at the high school age, when students begin to drop-out, that I think you'll hopefully see the greatest benefits of universal preschool. I imagine simply following dropout rates in Georgia over the next 4 years should be somewhat revealing. Though you obviously could not correlate any gains or losses directly to the universal preschool program, if we were to see some new trendlines, it would definitely be worth discussing.
Let me know how pre-school is funded in your region and your thoughts on this issue...