Worlds away from universal preschool

This story was published Feb. 17, 2013.

Every day for a week last August, little Ainsley Griner ran to the mailbox, looking for the letter her mother dreaded.

The letter, Sara Griner knew, might bring happy news that Ainsley, then 4, had a precious seat in one of the Shawnee Mission School District’s free pre-kindergarten classrooms.

But she feared a return to waiting lists.

As national discourse, fueled by President Barack Obama’s new campaign for universal pre-kindergarten, begins anew with billion-dollar questions to be answered, know this:

Parents such as the Griners want preschool — badly.

More than 1,000 children across the Kansas City area sit on public preschool waiting lists, a survey by The Star shows.

“You don’t want your child behind,” Sara Griner said. “You want them emotionally and socially ready for kindergarten.”

School districts find that too many children aren’t coming in ready.

The Star’s survey found that area school districts estimate on average that more than a third of their incoming kindergartners have less than the expected skills for beginners.

The percentage of children who are not ready rises to more than 50 percent in districts with poorer populations where more than 70 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

School superintendents across the area who have been working with their boards to expand preschool programs know that families on tight budgets, if left on waiting lists, are less likely than more affluent neighbors to enroll in high-quality private preschool options.

Costly choices torment families like the Griners. Sara and her husband, Andrew, are raising four children on his salary as an occupational therapist.

Parents like them know the private school options and have pondered day care centers. They have figured and refigured private preschool costs against family budgets.

The previous school year, when Ainsley didn’t get in the public preschool, Griner teamed up with other mothers to bring their children together regularly in one another’s living rooms to create some sort of preschool experience.

But Griner wanted her daughter in school, with real teachers.

When the letter from the school district finally appeared, Ainsley and her brother Caleb, then 6, came running with it from the mailbox.

“They already had it opened when they got back to the house, “ Griner said.

They huddled head to head on the couch, looking in as their mother unfolded the letter and began to read.

At that moment Griner and her children let out what could be a soundtrack to play behind the Missouri and Kansas legislative chambers as lawmakers weigh the costs of pre-kindergarten schooling on already underfunded education budgets.

As school districts such as Kansas City Public Schools put out the call for whole community collaboration.

And as researchers battle again over what studies really show that we get and don’t get with these heavy investments of public dollars.

It’s the sound of Griner and her children leaping and squealing.

The letter confirmed what the Shawnee Mission School District says the Griners should have already understood when they had filled out pre-enrollment paperwork the previous spring:

Ainsley was in.

Roughly $8,000 a child.

That’s how much services cost annually for the kind of preschool programming Kansas City children were getting Friday morning at the Metro YMCA Head Start at 3827 Troost Ave.

If you offer publicly funded preschool to everyone - whether through public schools, centers or partnerships with private schools - the experience in universal preschool states such as Oklahoma and Georgia suggests that 70 percent of families with preschoolers will probably take you up on it, said Jim Caccamo, director of the Department of Early Learning for the Mid-America Regional Council.

That means universal programming for 3- and 4-year-olds in Missouri would run between $800 million and $1.2 billion.

“That’s big enough to choke a horse, “ Caccamo said.

Kansas City Public Schools, in announcing an ambitious vision to create a district-community network to reach 6,000 preschoolers in its neighborhoods by 2015, put its price at $40 million.

Missouri Sen. Joseph Keaveny hasn’t yet figured the fiscal note that would be tied to his legislation that proposes letting school districts count their preschool enrollment in the daily attendance counts that determine state funding allotment.

“But it will be expensive, “ said Keaveny, a St. Louis Democrat. “No doubt in my mind.”

That’s why Caccamo wants communities to think of expanding universal early childhood programming in manageable bites. In a process. They would be creating education systems equivalent in size to many entire school districts, he said.

Many families with preschool-age children would leap at the chance, and educators charged with preparing children for the rising standards driving U.S. schools describe early childhood programming as an essential foundation in getting all children reading at grade level by the third grade.

“We must capture our scholars earlier, before they enter kindergarten, to move from a state of remediation to a state of readiness, “ Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said.

But questions continue to rise as a wide-ranging body of research splits opinions on whether the return on the investment has proved worth the heavy costs.

The staff at MARC’s Head Start offices know well much of the competing analyses. Now more than four decades old, Head Start has provided multiple opportunities for researchers studying the lifelong effects of the federal program spawned during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

“We’re the nation’s laboratory, “ said MARC Head Start program director Liz Smith.

A body of research derived from long-term control group studies, cited by the Center for American Progress, outlines the increased risks vulnerable children face without “high-quality early childhood intervention.”

An “at risk” child who misses out on such interventions, the center reported, is 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent, 60 percent more likely to never attend college and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Early childhood advocates also rely on the work of University of Chicago economics professor James Heckman, who projected that dollars spent on early childhood programming brought the greatest return of education dollars. Early programming’s links to less dependency and more productivity later in life ultimately bring $7 in return for every $1 spent on quality early childhood programs, he said.

The link, though, isn’t always clear.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services impact study on Head Start released in December mirrored results found in several studies of early childhood programs in which the immediate gains in academic and social skills that children gain over their peers largely dissipate by the third grade.

The control groups in the HHS research essentially caught up with Head Start children.

Similar results had been seen in other studies, the report said. In many of those older studies, the researchers noted, advantages of Head Start students that dissipated in elementary school re-emerged later in life. Head Start alums, compared to their peers, tended to experience more success in later schooling and earn higher wages.

At the state level, Missouri and Kansas have struggled to maintain investments in early childhood programming as economically stressed legislatures hammered out budgets in recent years.

While Missouri kept up funding for the First Steps program for children with disabilities, it trimmed what had been a $34 million appropriation for the Parents as Teachers program by more than half since 2008 and cut an additional $3 million from the $16 million the state had allotted to the Missouri Preschool Project to help districts serve at-risk families.

Over the past five years, Kansas has maintained about $30 million funding combined for its program for at-risk 4-year-olds, a pre-kindergarten pilot program and Parents as Teachers.

“We’ve added no new slots, “ said Gayle Stuber, Kansas’ early childhood coordinator. “We’ve not been able to add new programs.”

Across both states, state programs are reaching less than 15 percent of children, and Head Start is reaching a little more than 10 percent.

That leaves gaps that school districts are trying to bridge, Stuber said.

“But it’s difficult. They have to stretch (their budgets). They have so many choices.”

The Raymore-Peculiar School District wants to help parents such as April Weydert.

She and her 5-year-old son, Landyn, are two years along on the Cass County school district’s waiting list for its pre-kindergarten program.

Their last chance will probably come in May, when she hopes to get at least three months of preschool before kindergarten this fall.

She and her carpenter husband, a carpenter, have looked “from Lee’s Summit to Belton” for an affordable preschool in the meantime, but $180 for three days a week is more than they can manage, she said.

She has two younger children with her and Landyn at home. She would have to get a job to supplement her husband’s income to pay for preschool, but then she would also be paying for day care for her younger children.

Universal pre-kindergarten “would be helpful to a lot of people, “ she said, “so we aren’t struggling.”

The fact that Raymore-Peculiar is providing any free pre-kindergarten classrooms beyond federally funded Head Start and special education classrooms is unusual.

The district has been carving $100,000 out of its general coffers to provide pre-K for 50 to 60 children each year for eight years.

“We’ve found that the potential impact of early childhood education is huge, “ said Kevin Daniel, Ray-Pec’s assistant superintendent for academic services. “We would like every 4-year-old in Raymore-Peculiar to have access if parents want access. But the delta from where we’re at to where we want to be is broad.”

How to get there?

Obama is pledging more federal dollars, though he has not said yet where they would come from.

The Kansas City district wants to collaborate with community centers, church programs, YMCAs and other groups to rally resources and community investment.

Ray-Pec may approach its voters to consider a tax increase.

And while Keaveny knows that his two bills to make pre-K part of Missouri’s basic education funding are a long shot, they are getting a hearing and “they are going to start the discussion.”

The conversation is definitely on, Daniel said. The question now is “Do we have the will to get it done?”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.